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'They were scared when you picked them up.' Liz Dunn on raising triplets who are deaf and blind.

Liz Dunn was a mum with a three-year-old and newborn triplets when her marriage ended; but life was about to get much more challenging than she could ever have imagined.

Liz went into labour at just 23 weeks, and delivered daughters, Zoe, Sophie, and Emma, in April 2000, at 24 weeks. The triplets would soon become blind, and then deaf; and Liz parented them in the early years as a single mum because her husband couldn’t cope with the situation.

The extraordinary family from Houston in the United States featured on Dr Phil in 2007, where Liz spoke of the moment she discovered all three girls were blind.

Inside the life of Liz Dunn and her deaf, blind triplets. Post continues after video. 

“It was like getting hit by a Mac truck. I just fell to the floor and just wanted to disappear. I just couldn’t believe that this had happened to my babies,” she shared.

The girls had become blind because of Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP). Sophie is legally blind, has tunnel vision, and sees only colours and shapes. Zoe can distinguish between light and dark while Emma has no vision at all.

But Liz would not give up on her girls. With three-year-old Sarah as her only ‘help’, the mum-of-four gave her daughters everything she had within her – no matter what it took from her.

“Caring for the girls, I completely lost my identity,” Liz revealed.

“I was so, so busy with the girls, if I had any time to think, I felt like I was going to lose my mind.”

Liz also described feeling like Sarah was an “afterthought” in her parenting, as the triplets required so much of her attention.

Thanks to those efforts from their dedicated mum, Zoe, Sophie and Emma – who have no cognitive impairment – learned to walk, and started using their first words. But when they were two-and-a-half, the family was dealt another blow.

All three girls were discovered to have gradually become completely deaf due to suspected complications from medication they had been given at birth.

“The way the girls lost their hearing is they lost high frequencies first, and then low frequencies second. That would mean that female voices would be harder for them to hear,” Liz explained.

“It’s been one of my worst fears that they thought Mummy just stopped talking to them.”

The drugs also destroyed the vestibular hairs in the ears, resulting in the girls experiencing severe vertigo, and being unable to keep their heads up.

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LISTEN: Melinda Hildebrandt on the moment she found out her daughter was deaf. Post continues after audio.

The silent darkness was difficult for the triplets to understand and cope with.

“They also became mistrustful during this time,” Liz revealed in another interview.

“They would get scared when you picked them up off the floor. It took three more years for them to recover and begin walking again and resolve their angry behaviour.”

Not being able to communicate with her daughters in those younger years especially was an angst that caused Liz a great deal of pain.

“I could give them what they needed with the blindness, but with deafness and blindness, there was no way I could give them what they need,” she admitted.

Determined to try to look after herself, after years of being alone, Liz reached out to a former college boyfriend, George Hooker. The two eventually married. George has admitted he found the adjustment difficult.

“They are a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, full-time job. It never ends,” he said, revealing that the relentless nature of the situation has put a great strain on their marriage. He cited the example that their mornings rarely begin cheerfully.

“Liz and I can get up, open their bedroom door, and the first thing that hits you is the smell.

“They’ve managed to get out of their diapers, and the entire room is brown.”

Meal times, Liz said, were also difficult, with Sophie, Zoe and Emma struggling to feed themselves neatly, and food ending up all over the kitchen and the girls themselves. Liz admitted this is why the girls needed frequent baths; another being that due to their challenges, they hadn’t been able to be toilet train adequately.

“In those ways, it’s a lot like having infants,” Liz shared.

dunn triplets
Liz and her four children. Image: Fox.
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Despite her exhaustion and constant worry, the mum also described some good moments, such as enjoying watching the girls play on swings because they love the movement. She said she’ll never give up – even though there have been many times she wanted to.

“Those first steps were like watching them win the marathon. They work so hard for every little gain. The highs are higher."

But Liz admitted she felt an overwhelming sense of not being able to do enough for her daughters.

"Having deafblind triplets is going to bed every night and knowing that I didn't do enough. There is no way for me to give them everything they need.”

In all of this, there is of course Liz’s older daughter, Sarah, who said she is often alone in her room, and would love some time with her mum. It’s a problem Liz said she felt guilty about.

“We call Sarah the invisible child,” she said.

That admission was one of the deciding factors for Dr Phil to organise help for the family. He set up a foundation which was able to pay for ‘interveners’ – trained helpers who could spend one-on-one time with the triplets – who have been a huge help to the family.

Sarah, Emma and Zoe also have cochlear implants, which Liz said has helped them to at least hear sounds; and has enabled them to attend some mainstream schooling (with aides). That participation is something Liz very much wanted, after being inspired by the story of Helen Keller – a deafblind woman born in 1880, who became a famous author.

"Helen Keller's life proved that deafblind people can learn and contribute to society,” she said.

“That's made a huge difference in how the girls are educated."

Zoe, Sophie and Emma turned 19 this year, but little more is known about their lives.

Nama Winston has had a decade-long legal career (paid), and a decade-long parenting career (unpaid). Now a Mamamia Contributor and freelance writer, Nama uses her past experience as a lawyer to discuss everything from politics, to parenting. You can follow her on Instagram: @namawinston and Facebook: @NamaWinston.

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