As Sara and the caretakers descend the stairs, you immediately see that each baby is unique. The triplets, less than 5 months old, physically look different and have individual personalities to match. Although the two boys, Tzemach and Moshe, are dressed in matching blue outfits, one is slightly larger-the good eater, as his parents call him-and is wide eyed, ready for a bottle. The other is calm, fast asleep.
And there is no denying that their sister, Chaya Mushka, is the headstrong one of the group. She is making her presence known, and even when she is taken back upstairs, her parents laugh periodically at the sounds of her demands floating down the hallway. "The amazing thing about my husband," says Sara Mintz about Rabbi Yossi, "is that he treats each of our children like they are an only child."
The Mintzes are all smiles as they talk about their family, which grew from two children to five at the end of 2011. But behind all their joy are many years of infertility struggles that would lead to this point. When they bought their Redondo Beach home, they had one son, Mendel, who is now 15 years old. The seemingly large house had many rooms to fill. But the couple approached the building of their family as they did the building of the Growing Garden Preschool and Kindergarten. "If you create a vessel for blessings, they will come," says Sara, the school's director, who along with her husband helped found the JCC and the preschool.
"When we started the preschool, we had it set up from day one to accommodate 100 kids. I think that year we had maybe 13," Sara adds. But 11 years later, the school has grown enormously and now accommodates 150 students. Growing Garden Preschool and Kindergarten is part of the Jewish Community Center of the South Bay, where Yossi serves as executive director and rabbi of the Chabad of the Beach Cities.
The Journey Begins
The Mintzes turned to Rifaat Salem, MD, PhD, medical director and chairman of the Pacific Reproductive Center, after trying to conceive for 11 years, and they were blessed with their now 3½-year-old son, Isaac. So when they decided to try infertility treatments again, the couple was hopeful. As Yossi tells the story, he was not there the day of the ultrasound that confirmed three heartbeats. In fact, when his wife called him, he was on the 405. She told him to pull over because she had some news. After Sara told him not to worry, that there was nothing wrong, the rabbi thought, "It must be twins." Never could he have guessed it was triplets.
From early on, the pregnancy was not an easy one. Sara's obstetrician, Barbara Schulz, MD, had her come in weekly for checkups, and she frequently was seen by perinatologist Scott Naylor, MD. Sara also had to undergo weekly stress tests, and twice a day she had to monitor her contraction levels. It was a countdown: How long could these babies remain in utero?
Almost from the beginning, friends, family and members of the JCC community questioned Sara and Yossi on whether or not she was carrying multiples. (Only the babies' grandparents were aware that the couple was having triplets). "Rabbi, you must be having twins," Yossi heard all the time. He was telling the truth when he repeatedly answered, "I am positive, it is not twins."
It was not long before Sara could no longer work. A small woman in stature, carrying triplets was making it hard to stand and walk. Starting the 18th week of her pregnancy, she was at home almost permanently.
A Critical 29 Minutes
At a 32-plus-week checkup with Dr. Schulz, Sara complained of a leg cramp. Since Yossi and Sara were already on their way to Torrance Memorial Medical Center for a non-stress test, Dr. Schulz reccomended that they also rule out a blood clot. Hours later, with no contractions and after hearing three strong heartbeats, the couple decided to head home. But the situation turned dire just a few hours later.
Around 1:15 a.m., Sara woke up and found pools of blood on the bed and floor. Yossi immediately dialed 911. Then Yossi dialed Dr. Schulz, who instructed the couple to come to Torrance Memorial Medical Center. Dr. Schulz would call ahead and make sure the hospital staff was ready for them. Within minutes, the Manhattan Beach Fire Department and Paramedics arrived. The medics worked quickly, and soon an ambulance arrived to get Sara on a stretcher and take her to the hospital.
Yossi remembers that when he stepped into the front seat of the ambulance, the driver commented that it was raining-a symbol of blessing in the Jewish tradition. These were among many small words of great comfort. The couple later learned that the crew in the first ambulance had followed them to the hospital in the middle of the night so they could check on Sara and the babies.
When the ambulance arrived at Torrance Memorial, Dr. Schulz and a full team of doctors were waiting in Labor and Delivery. "Everyone was ready," said Yossi. "And I heard them calling people, too, over the loudspeaker."
"I had Sara's blood type, so I called ahead to the lab," says Dr. Schulz. "I told the rabbi to get her to Torrance Memorial. The experience of the doctors and nurses allows them to rise to the occasion in a critical situation." On the doctor's way to the hospital, she phoned ahead to Labor and Delivery nurse Mercedes Sevilla, RN, and told her to prepare an operating room and alert an anesthesiologist, and that the first critical step would be to find the babies' three heartbeats. That would give the team more time.
After a quick assessment in the hallway of Labor and Delivery, Sara was immediately taken into the operating room, where a team of 15 to 18 doctors, nurses and technologists were waiting for her. Everyone encouraged Yossi to leave the room, but unable to stay away, he kept poking in his head to check on the situation. The initial thought was to put Sara completely under with anesthesia, but the anesthesiologist said he could work quickly. In just minutes, Sara had a spinal placed.
Soon, the babies were delivered via cesarean section. "`It's a boy,' they yelled, and then I heard the crying. Then the second; a boy again. I thought, 'You've got to be kidding,'" Yossi says. Not knowing the sex of the babies, he was hoping for at least one girl. And finally, with the third birth, the Mintzes got their wish. "I always said if I was going to have a girl, she'd have two bodyguards," Yossi adds with a big grin.
After hearing all three newborns cry, Yossi checked his phone. Remarkably, it had been only 29 minutes from when he called 911 to when all the children had been delivered.
The triplets spent the next 35 days at Torrance Memorial, where the Mintzes say they learned first-hand about the amazing Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) staff. "They don't just take care of babies. They take care of the families too," says Yossi. And the entire experience changed any previous notions he had of the NICU. "I used to walk by the NICU, and your heart broke. Sick children, so sad. Now that I spent 35 days there, I know it's a special place. It's angelic; it's not part of this earth. So much love and caring and dedication."
Over the course of their stay, the family had one big scare when one of the baby boys fell ill with an infection. His heart rate dropped, and he had to be resuscitated several times. "Our pediatrician, Gwen Klyman-Friend, MD, called and came down three times a day to check on him," says Yossi. She even came to the hospital to hold Sara's hand as she cried.
Another doctor who was comforting and reassuring during this difficult time was Jerry Schwartz, MD, medical director of neonatology at Torrance Memorial. "He was on vacation, but he had given me his cell phone [number], and he reassured us every few hours," says Yossi. On December 25, during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and after a get-together with Yossi and 15 others that included prayer, song and charity given in the merit of the health of the baby, the baby's health drastically turned around.
Though the babies have been home for several months now, Yossi has returned to the NICU several times to say hello and thank the staff. On the holiday of Purim, he took them traditional hamentashen cookies. The staff will always hold a special place in the hearts of the Mintzes. Sara says she even cried when they left the hospital, because the staff had become so much a part of the family.
But it wasn't just the doctors and nurses. She remembers fondly the volunteer high school students who helped the triplets prepare for their trip home the day of their release. And it's the parking valet who, for 35 days, asked Yossi about the progress of his little ones. And the security guard on the third floor who checked in with him every day.
Between the Jewish Community Center and its preschool, Rabbi Yossi says he works with a community of more than 1,000 people. But his reach in the community does not stop there. He is also the executive director of the Friendship Circle of the South Bay, an organization that brings together volunteer teenagers to have fun and be friends with children with special needs. The Friendship Circle of the South Bay co-hosts with SKECHERS the annual Pier to Pier Friendship Walk to raise money and build awareness for the Friendship Circle and the South Bay School Districts.
Yossi says that his respect of the hospital has only grown. And he now finds himself telling members of the South Bay what a wonderful place it is. He is proud to call several of its doctors his personal friends. "The remarkable staff and medical team at Torrance Memorial are a beacon of light, strength and comfort to our entire community. We have one of the best hospitals in California right in our backyard!" says Yossi.
As the interview winds down, I finally ask the question on everyone's mind: "How do you manage three newborns?" The Mintzes just smile. "For God to trust us with this-to put three human beings that have a potential to make the world a better place in our care-that's amazing," says Yossi. "We're humbled by it."