Within minutes in the early hours of July 7, 1998, Emery, Grace, Ellie, Maggie and Martin Miller entered the world, becoming the only surviving quintuplets to be born in North Carolina.
Their births, which came after months of fears and uncertainties for their parents, Nancy and Kent Miller, brought along a new host of concerns.
They were born prematurely at 29 weeks and six days. They ranged in weight from 1 pound, 15.5 ounces (Maggie) to 2 pounds, 9 ounces (Emery).
Not to mention, the Miller family of three had more than doubled. How would they handle it all? How would they even keep track of all five infants? Would they ever sleep?
The Millers knew high-risk multiple pregnancies could mean physical disabilities and developmental delays.
“I think the doctors were painting a worst-case scenario,” Nancy Miller remembered. “Because I couldn’t have envisioned this, of course.”
“This” – as she glanced at the living room where I just interviewed the quints – is a group of four sisters and a brother who are about to turn 18 years old. Despite the horror stories Nancy and Kent were told, the five children are doing just fine.
More than fine, really. They’re thriving. They’re bright, engaging, funny and filled with love for each other, for their family (which includes an older sister, Anna) and for their faith.
At the time the quints were born, the community rallied around the family, sending prayers their way constantly. Hundreds of people donated thousands of dollars of goods, services, toys and even scholarships to Wake Tech Community College. Dozens more took on shifts at the family house for months, making sure each baby – identified by color to keep track of each one – was fed, changed and properly napped.
“Just looking back at our birth and all the risks involved, and how many people poured into us, it makes me feel so blessed right now,” Ellie said. “It just makes me all the more want to help others and bless others and reciprocate that care.”
Nancy and Kent Miller were both 32 years old when they got married. They started dating while each volunteered for an inner-city ministry in Raleigh. They liked the idea of a big family, but knew it might be more difficult because of their ages.
Anna came along four years later. Two years later, their lives were rocked with the news that they would have five children at the same time.
At the time, Nancy was a speech therapist for children with special needs from birth to 3 years old. About half were born premature. She knew firsthand how a premature birth could affect a child.
“Looking back, that was God’s preparation,” said Nancy, now 56. “I was basically being trained by experts on how to work with premature infants.”
Nancy had to go on bed rest for five months, with about six weeks spent at UNC Hospitals. She occupied her time, lying on her left side, by talking to God. She needed faith and guidance to get her through the pregnancy, and what would come after her children were born. At the same time, she had to keep stress to a minimum, to avoid triggering labor.
“It actually ended up being so incredibly difficult, but it was such an intimate time with Christ,” she said. “It really was a day at a time.”
A few weeks before the doctor’s goal of 32 weeks, a team of about 30 doctors and nurses had a mission plan to handle the births, which came by cesarean section.
And then the five-ring circus began.
The siblings pretty much do everything together. Basketball, soccer, camps, ballroom dancing, jobs. They’ve been home-schooled the whole time and joined a home school co-op years ago. Along the way, they’ve discovered and developed their individual interests.
Grace wants to play college basketball. Ellie loves to paint. Martin hopes to major in engineering.
They finish one another’s sentences and can talk to each other for hours. While some might tire of so much togetherness, it only has tightened their bonds.
They often were surrounded by other large families, so they didn’t necessarily realize they were unique until they grew older. They turned down requests to have their lives filmed before the ubiquitous reality shows about multiples surfaced.
“We didn’t want the kids’ identity to be quintuplets,” Nancy said. “They’re just people.”
They and their parents fielded questions whenever they were out. Were they related? Oh, they were the Miller quintuplets?
“You know how normal people have one stroller for a baby?” Emery said. “We had the triplet ones, but we had two of those. So we looked really ridiculous whenever we went on a walk. That stood out to people.”
When they were younger, they had “Best Buddy” days when the six siblings would pair off. They’d wear matching clothes from their mass quantities of hand-me-downs and would share any sweets that came their way. Whoever was paired with Martin would wear camouflage, since he’s a fan of the outdoors.
“Sharing our whole lives has been really good for us,” Maggie said. “It’s second nature. We’re all in each other’s space.”
As they grew older and their physical characteristics and personalities became more defined, it was easier to tell them apart.
Grace and Ellie both are tall and blonde. Maggie, at 5 feet 2 inches is the shortest and is the only one with brown eyes and tanner skin. She sometimes is asked if she’s adopted. Emery, the oldest, with her dark wavy hair, resembles Anna, their older sister who turns 20 two weeks after her siblings’ birthday. Martin stands out, not only for being the only boy but for being 5-foot-10 and hovering above his sisters.
Over the years, they’ve figured out systems to maintain order. Everything is done in birth order, from chores to how they celebrate birthdays.
They celebrate together on July 7. But they also get what they call a “Special Day” starting on May 7, every month through October, to do whatever they want. Typically, that involves spending time with the family, whether it’s traveling or having a sleepover with friends.
Only Maggie and Martin have driver’s licenses at the moment.
While Kent, also 56, works for Alcon as a field service engineer repairing surgical eye equipment, Nancy has been queen of the chauffeurs. Their calendar is an ever-evolving plan, with schoolwork, activities, friends and jobs sending them in different directions.
Relishing every moment
Their faith is integrated into conversation. They believe in God’s plan for them, wherever that may take them as senior year of high school and college approach. They know they will remain close if they get separated, with their home always serving as the central place for reunions.
“Obviously we have a very good life,” Nancy says. “God has made it so beautiful. It was hard when they were little. It was unbelievably fun, too.”
I was struck that the teens have an unusual respect for life that many of their peers likely don’t experience, believing it’s a miracle they’re alive, buoyed by the prayers from so many. They also have an empathy for children with special needs, knowing they could have had similar disabilities. With the exception of a few procedures here and there over the years, not all attributed to their premature births, they’ve been healthy.
It’s one reason why Maggie hopes to enter the field of pediatric occupational therapy.
“It’s a huge part of our testimony,” she said. “It makes me make the most of every single moment of every day. When I take a drink, or I talk to my sister, I know according to science, it’s likely that I wouldn’t and shouldn’t be able to do that.”
“We have the gift of life,” Grace adds. “God has a plan for everything else in my life.”
Meet the Millers
Get to know the quintuplets, in the order they were born.
Defining characteristic: She’s one of the most talkative and outgoing of the group and loves to try anything once, even if she’s bad at it. She likes music, especially guitar and drums. Her siblings tease her about her online shopping habit and her penchant for buying shoes. She might pursue marketing or sales. Her best times are hanging out in the kitchen with her family. “That’s my absolute favorite thing ever,” she said. “We’re just cracking jokes.”
Defining characteristic: She might be the most reserved in her personality, perhaps saving her energy for the basketball court. Her siblings says she’s very disciplined. Indeed, she spends more than 3 hours a day during the summer training, between going to the gym and putting up shots. At 13, she decided to be more competitive about the sport. While also pursuing a nursing degree, she wants to play basketball in college.
Helen ‘Ellie’ Marie
Defining characteristic: Ellie comes off as shy at first, but her warm personality surfaces. Her siblings note her dry wit and ability to make people feel included. In addition to her artistic talents – her paintings are scattered through the house – she loves animals. “Growing up, I had every type of rodent you can think of – hamsters, guinea pigs,” she said. “I rescued a mouse.” She wants to enter the dental hygiene program at Wake Tech.
Margit ‘Maggie’ Jackson
Defining characteristic: Her siblings describe Maggie as “feisty” and “like a stick of dynamite.” Or, as her mother puts it, “Rather than walking through the house, she cartwheels.” You can most often find her outdoors or playing the piano. She loves school, and after getting a nursing degree, she wants to enter the field of pediatric occupational therapy.
Defining characteristic: Besides being the only boy, Martin is known for being outdoorsy. “If I’m on a deserted island, you want Martin with you,” Maggie says. He loves history. “I love to learn about where we’ve been and how that can influence the future,” he says. But he likely will major in civil or mechanical engineering. His sisters say he’s very loyal and will be great at dispensing fashion advice.