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Rare birth offers lessons in parenting with disabilities

Things are a little hectic at the Izzie house in rural Madison County. The dogs offer a noisy greeting. Downstairs grandpa Alan is watching Masha and the Bear with the kids, and his son-in-law, Rudy, is on the phone with his office. Upstairs, Danielle Izzie – a marketing professional and blogger -- closes her laptop and starts making dinner. At first glance, the Izzies seem like so many 21st century families, but it turns out their story is surprising and inspiring.

Dani, for example, needs a wheel chair to get around and has limited use of her arms and hands.

"I’m a quadriplegic from a spinal cord injury," she explains. "I slipped and fell in the bathroom and snapped my neck.. It paralyzed everything from my chest down."

The recovery was hard, and she had to accept the prognosis – she would never walk again. But she held onto the dream of having her own family.

"I didn’t really see myself as the domestic goddess type," she recalls. "I didn’t plan my wedding years ahead or anything like that. I saw myself as an adventurer and a traveler, but I definitely always wanted kids."

She was a graduate student in California when she came home for a visit and met Rudy online. Their first date included an unbeatable combination – ice cream, whiskey and romance.

"Y’know I left the first date without a smooch, and I was about 100 yards away when my phone blew up, and she told me to come back and kiss her.," he laughs. "So I turned around and went back and kissed her, and I was probably pretty hooked from that point on."

Physically fit and a serious weight-lifter, Rudy had no qualms about helping Dani to navigate the world, but they needed a doctor’s advice on the question of having kids.

"She gave me her blessing. She said, ‘Go for it! You guys go get busy!’ A couple of months later we started trying, and I got pregnant right away."

During their first ultrasound, the technician was looking at Dani’s belly as she began the procedure, but Rudy was watching the screen – trying to understand what he was seeing.

"And he goes, ‘Why are there two?'’ And the technician looks up at the screen and says, ‘Wow, you have two babies in there.’ We were just like, ‘No, you have got to be kidding!’ It was the biggest shock of our lives," Dani says.

They were thrilled but frankly afraid. No one had heard of a quadriplegic woman giving birth to twins, so they found an expert on high-risk pregnancies at UVA – Dr. Robert Fuller.

People with spinal cord injuries often have blood pressure that fluctuates. Too low and the babies could be deprived of Oxygen. Too high and Dani was at risk for a stroke or heart attack, but Fuller reassured them.

“Both babies have normal heart rates. Both babies have normal fluid, and there’s no evidence of any trouble with them getting along in there.”

Still the couple faced one more medical challenge. The year was 2020, and the pandemic was taking hold.

"I’m kind of high risk, because I have 30% lung function, so I can’t get pneumonia. I can’t even get the flu. I need to be really careful."

That meant foregoing visits with family, friends and a video crew that had begun recording the Izzie’s story for a documentary.

"So yes, I filmed myself in labor."

And labor, of course, came six weeks early. Rudy and Dani rushed to UVA – at least 45 minutes from their home.

"And can you believe a cop flagged us and followed us to the hospital, making sure we went the speed limit, even thought my husband rolled down the window and said, ‘She’s in labor.’" Dani recalls.

Soon after arrival, through an emergency C-section, the babies were born. They were healthy but weighed just four pounds apiece, so they had to spend two weeks in the neo-natal intensive care unit When they finally came home in the midst of the COVID pandemic, Dani and Rudy were still on their own.

"Rudy, I need help. Huh. Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakie," a sleepy new mom would call to the dozing new dad. Over time, they divided the duties of parenthood.

"He does the diapers. He gives them baths," Dani explains. "He gets them dressed. I choose the outfits, always. And I do a lot of the administrative things: sign them up for school, make sure they get doctors’ appointments and I make sure they get their naps in. I can cook. I’m able to clean, and I do all the research in the parenting books and methods, so we both have our talents.

Giorgiana and Lavinia are now two years old – happy, healthy and compassionate kids.

"They kind of just know that Mommy needs a little extra help sometimes," she says. "I never ask them for anything. I don’t want to ever put them in the position where they have to take care of Mom, but they’ll check on me and say, ‘Are you okay, Mama?’ Like the other day I was going down the path and it’s a little steep so I go slow, and Giorgiana asked me, ‘You stuck, Mama?’ She came up behind my chair and tried to help. They just do it naturally and I’ve heard from my other friends who are wheelchair users similar things about their kids – that they’re naturally really considerate and helpful."

And she hopes the film they helped make – called Dani’s Twins – will begin to change public attitudes about people with disabilities parenting.

"Disabled people’s custody rights are not equal. Parents can be discriminated against on disability alone in one third of the states. I had comments from people telling me that I shouldn’t have children, that it’s selfish, how could I take care of kids if I could barely take care of myself. What I learned through this journey is it’s not so much my physical capabilities that matter. It’s the resourcefulness. It’s how I figure out how to get things done regardless. It’s the relationship I build with my husband and with my kids, and it’s the love that I provide."

The film premiered at the Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride last week. As it’s shown elsewhere, Dani and her family hope it will change popular perceptions of parenthood and disability.

To see a trailer of the film and pictures of the Izzie family go to https://www.danistwinsfilm.com/

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief