Stacey Carey, 34, had always dreamed of being a mother, from the time she and her sisters were little girls.
After struggling for years to start a family and giving birth 11 months ago to premature sextuplets, who survived all odds after weighing less than two pounds at birth, Carey is now celebrating her first Mother's Day with her newborns.
"We always talked about how when we got older, we were going to have kids," Stacey's sister, Katie Horan, says. "And our kids were all going to be close, and be friends."
Now that six happy, peaceful little faces brighten up Stacey's life, no one could tell that she was staging a desperate vigil less than a year ago, praying they all would survive.
"I've never met somebody in my life that was just so able to overcome these things in her life, and she did it like it was a breeze," Katie said.
In her job as a teacher in the Philadelphia area, Stacey was surrounded by kids, day in and out. At home, however, she and husband Brendan struggled to start their family.
"It was really important to have kids. I mean, her theory was there'd be no point in getting married ever, if kids weren't in the situation," Brendan recalled.
Her sister Ellie says that Stacey is a very private person, but she saw in her eyes that she was hurting as she struggled for one of the major missing elements of her life. Stacey's friend, Colleen DiCandeloro, also recalls the years of trying and fertility treatments that Stacey endured.
"Stacey had to go through the showers for Ellie, buying baby furniture, and I know she would go home and Brendan would say, 'Yeah, she came home crying,' thinking it would never happen [for her]," Stacey's mom, Peggy Malachoski, said.
Finally, after six long years of trying, the couple's miracle baby Julianna, came along. "When she had Julianna, she was just the world to her," Stacey's sister-in-law, Danielle Gronczewski, said.
The couple wanted little Julianna to have a sibling, so within a within a year Stacey was pregnant again. But this time, there was a surprise.
"She called me and she says, 'I'm pregnant.' And I said, 'Oh my god, that's great.' And she says, 'But with six babies.' And I said, 'Excuse me,'" Ellie remembers.
For Stacey, six babies growing inside of her came with a mixture of joy and fear. Dr. Gerard Cleary, medical director at Abington Hospital's Neonatal ICU, says that six present an "extraordinarily high risk for both mom and the babies."
Stacey, however, was determined.
"What [Stacey] said to me was, 'God wouldn't give me more than I can handle,'" friend Claire Leotta said.
That theory was put to the test when two months before the babies were born Stacey was admitted to the hospital, where her husband says she did not leave her room for 60 days. He compared it to a prison cell for his wife. Her friends describe a woman on the edge.
"I've just never really seen her unglued, and you could just see in her face how difficult it was for her," friend DiCandeloro said.
Finally, on June 1, 2011, there was no more waiting for Stacey and Brendan. The babies came 13 weeks early: Emma, Samantha, Olivia, John, Patrick and Conner. Teeny, tiny bundles of love, all between one and two pounds, at last arrived. For Stacey, her intense worry multiplied by six.
"They only had about a 5 percent chance of everybody being home. So we're not talking about a low risk situation," Dr. Cleary said.
Stacey's mother-in-law says that everyone around her prayed, while the new mom remained relentlessly upbeat.
"I'd say, 'How's Emma doing today?' and she'd say, 'She'll have a better day tomorrow,'" John Carey, Stacey's father-in-law, remembers. "You know, she kept herself probably calm for Brendan and the family."
Slowly, the fragile babies came home, in what family members describe as a miracle. But they weren't out of the woods yet. During the winter, more hospital visits came, with baby Patrick struggling the most.
"Patrick, he wanted his mommy," Stacey's Sister, Ellie, recalls, holding back tears. "He wanted to be held. And when she put him down to leave, she used to get so upset. Because she said that he would struggle more with his breathing when he wasn't being held. So she'd say, 'I just wanted to be there with him all the time.'"
As winter gave way to spring, Brendan and Stacey's sextuplets all started to get stronger. Today they are still defying expectations.
"A lot of how well a premature baby does depends on the home they go to," Dr. Cleary says. "They are doing as well as they are because of how great a mom she is.
This Mother's Day, "Good Morning America" and chef Emeril Lagasse have selected Stacey as a mom to celebrate, one whose love has kept her magnificent seven (don't forget the sextuplets' big sister Julianna) alive, against all the medical odds.
"She's someone who I look up to very much and aspire to be like," sister Katie says through tears, sister Ellie adding, "I look up to her as someone who is so brave, so courageous, so loving you know, she means everything to me."
With love and support and tears of joy, Stacey's proud family, friends, and loved ones are wishing the joyful mom a very happy Mother's Day as she continues to care for her miracle six.
"You know we all love you and we're just so proud of the mom that you are," Claire says. "I don't know how you do it every day."