THE PARENTS: Meagan Brackeen, 34, and Rhett Brackeen, 34, of Point Breeze
THE CHILD: Margaret (Margo) Marie, born July 14, 2017
HOW THEY NAMED HER: They liked “Margo” but wanted a “fancy, formal name” for when their daughter was older, or to be said with mock-strictness when she misbehaved.
One minute, he was a dad-to-be, pushing an empty wheelchair into Pennsylvania Hospital because his wife was too wracked with contractions to sit down.
Ten minutes later, after fetching the club soda Meagan wanted, Rhett returned to tumult: Meagan was already eight centimeters dilated. The baby’s heart rate had dropped. Doctors and nurses buzzed around, inserting an IV, placing an oxygen mask, asking Meagan if she had any allergies.
After one push that sent her body into shock, doctors gave Meagan general anesthesia and readied her for an emergency C-section. “And I was just this guy in the post-op room, wondering what happened,” Rhett recalls.
It wasn’t the drama they expected — Meagan had been preparing for a midwife-assisted birth, and at 38 weeks they made a trip to Target for water bottles and Butterfingers, Goldfish crackers and peppermints.
The next morning, she started labor: contractions that soon had her doubled over their bed, breathing silently through each slam of pain. She had four fierce contractions in the car, another in a crowded hospital elevator. A few people called “good luck” as she staggered off at the maternity floor.
For Meagan and Rhett, the most harrowing moment had already happened: when they learned, 14 weeks into her pregnancy, that the baby had cystic fibrosis. It wasn’t a complete shock; both of them are carriers, and a cousin of Meagan’s had died from the disease in 2014.
Still, “it was jolting,” Rhett remembers. “We went through a month that was almost like a mourning period.” A meeting with physicians in the Cystic Fibrosis Center at CHOP helped ease their anxieties.
“The doctor was really matter-of-fact, [saying] ‘She’s a kid first who just happens to have CF,’ ” Meagan says. “Would she be able to go to daycare? Of course. She’d travel, do sports, everything a kid without CF would do. They helped us come out on the other side. We left that meeting excited again about having a baby.”
For a few years, Meagan and Rhett had been babysitting the daughter of close friends, an experience that confirmed their own yen to be parents. And by their early 30s, they felt adult enough to swallow that responsibility. Meagan, who has one sister, hoped for a girl; Rhett looked forward to bringing a child into the embrace of his family: four brothers he considers his best friends and closest confidants.
He was raised in Shawnee, Okla., and when he met Meagan — both were juniors working at the university newspaper, the Oklahoma Daily — her Canadian citizenship and north-of-the-border accent made her seem exotic.
On their first date, because Meagan wasn’t yet 21, they bought lime Diet Cokes and spiked them with Jack Daniels at Rhett’s house. On a subsequent outing, Meagan got to witness the unfortunate intestinal consequences when Rhett eats red meat — who knew there was some lurking in the queso? — and on another date, he pleaded to use her shower because the one in his shared house wasn’t working.
The two managed to “almost” live together — rental houses next door to each other during their senior year, then a summer when Rhett camped in Meagan’s childhood bedroom while working at the Tulsa World — without violating her parents’ strict stance against cohabitation before marriage.
There were more adventures — a “let’s do it” move to Philadelphia in 2007; a year in England while Meagan earned a master’s degree in publishing; travels to Istanbul and Paris and Portugal — before Rhett asked Meagan’s mother to send him a family engagement ring, a keepsake from Meagan’s great-aunt.
That ring was tucked in his pocket as the two sat by the River Thames on a 2012 visit to England. They were sipping beer and watching the swans. He was about to propose when Meagan began screaming; she’d spotted a nest of rats and leaped up to flee the river bank.
He tried again — and succeeded, this time — a bit later on that trip, as the two rested in a park in Scotland, the lower highlands punctuated with castle views. They married at the Merion Tribute House in 2013, a day both remember for its cultural mash-up: Canadian guests watching the Oklahoma crew boogie to Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” then her hometown friends rocking to “Throw Ya Hands Up,” an obscure ’80s single by a Canadian band.
The day Meagan learned she was pregnant, Rhett began a punch-list: Paint the room. Buy diapers. Get a crib. Write a will. Start a 529 account. Then came the genetic testing, the diagnosis and months of grappling with what cystic fibrosis would mean for their daughter, and for them.
They became involved with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, raised money to support research, and learned what their daughter would need to stay healthy. She spent 11 days in the NICU after birth because of breathing difficulties, but by day five she was eating applesauce with the enzymes her body needs to help with nutrient absorption.
“We have a video of her in the incubator with the nurse feeding her the applesauce,” Meagan recalls. “She smacked her lips.”
Their days begin and end with a regimen of airway clearing, a 24-minute series of percussions on Margo’s chest, back and sides. They visit CHOP’s Cystic Fibrosis Center monthly, in addition to regular pediatrician appointments. They’re cautious around people with colds and watchful about what the baby puts in her mouth.
“But we don’t keep her in a bubble,” Rhett says. “I know, and Meagan knows, that in Margo’s future there are going to be hospital visits. There are going to be scary times. We’re going to have to learn to get through them. It’s taught me to value every single moment you spend with your child.” Including those early mornings when he wakes Margo for chest compressions and she flashes him that gummy grin. “She looks at me like, ‘What’s your problem? We’re just here to hang out.’ ”