Woman who gave birth to quintuplets became the original supermom

The doctor leaned in.

The heartbeats sounded strange, clustered and erratic.

Twins, he told Debbie Knox. Wow, she thought. Two babies at once.

On the next visit, the thumping of the heart still sounded unusual.

It might be triplets, he said.

She grimaced. Or maybe laughed. Or probably a little of both. She doesn't really remember.

At the next appointment, the heartbeats seemed to multiply, so the doctor ordered an X-ray, which was standard before sonograms.

He counted the babies on the X-ray. One. Two. Three. Four. Quadruplets.

Would all four be healthy? Would all four survive? Knox, who lived in Lewisville, was 20 years old. Could she even manage to care for four babies? Of course, she could. She was too young, perhaps too naive, to think anything else.

On July 18, 1975, she gave birth at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. The doctor had been wrong.

There were five babies.

A media sensation

Christa, Casey, Chanda, Charla and Chelsa Davis became the first set of quintuplets in Texas and only the eighth in the United States. Knox, who had taken Clomid, a mild fertility drug, became the youngest mother of quintuplets in the world.

It took six minutes to deliver the babies, four girls and one boy, by cesarean section. Her mother, LaVerne Moseley, who also had five babies, visited her in the hospital.

"Debbie," she told her, "it took you six minutes to do what it took me 12 years."

The quintuplets became a media sensation, with reporters from People magazine, Good Morning America and National Enquirer writing about the family.

Just three days after the births, Knox, then Debbie Davis, and her husband, Jerry, answered questions during a news conference at the hospital. A media report at the time described her as calm, glowing and content, wearing a pink and black robe.

"I was overwhelmed," said Knox, who now lives in Haslet. "I had no idea what I was in for."

The babies, who ranged from a little more than a pound to about 3 pounds, would each come home over the next two months.

While Knox was visiting the last two babies at the hospital, a nurse cheerily told her that the fourth baby could go home. Knox burst into tears. When she brought the baby home, her mother burst into tears.

More attention

Five babies presented certain challenges.

Each baby -- and each baby's belongings -- was assigned a color and a letter, A through E, to ease confusion.

To bathe them, Knox would stick each baby in the crib, then pull one out at a time.

To feed them, Knox lined up five high chairs and sat on a bench facing them. Holding a tiny spoon and a jar of Gerber, which donated all of the baby food, she slid down the bench giving each baby a spoonful at a time.

"They were so patient with me," she said. "It was like they knew I was doing my best, moving as fast as I could."

In public, strangers stared. At the zoo, people ignored the monkeys and took photos of the Davis quints. Once, on a trip to Pikes Peak, the quints became the main attraction.

After the quints started elementary school, a friend suggested that she stop dressing them alike.

"That had never even occurred to me," Knox said. "It was just so easy to say, 'Go get your red T-shirts and bluejeans.'"

They moved to East Texas in 1987 to escape the media attention, but the craziness continued.

By the time they got to high school, the four girls shared a giant walk-in closet, and fights over clothes would erupt daily. The girls would even ransack their brother's closet for button-down shirts and menswear-inspired looks, popular at the time.

"The closet turned into the gladiator coliseum," joked Casey Davis, the sole boy, who now lives in Houston. "It was pandemonium."

Driving also proved difficult.

Knox planned for the five teenagers to share one car, a blue Mitsubishi Colt. Within two weeks, she admitted it would not work. So they bought Casey his own car and planned for the four girls to share one. That, too, did not work. Soon, the family owned seven cars.

And Knox discovered a hidden talent while buying cars. She was a fine negotiator.

The empty nest

That first Mother's Day, in 1976, passed in a blur. The ones after that were spent in church, together. This year, Knox and one of her daughters will take a trip to Hot Springs, Ark.

Now 36, the Davis quints are parents themselves and live across Texas. Knox is divorced from their father and is remarried. They moved back to the Metroplex in 1994.

With the quints grown up and gone, Knox did not know what to do.

"All of a sudden, I didn't have three loads of laundry to do every day. I didn't have a family full of people to cook for. I didn't have anyone to take care of," she said. "I was completely lost."

She decided to become a flight attendant but hated the travel. She worked for an airline scheduling the shuttle service for pilots and flight attendants but still felt something was missing. She took a job in a hotel chain's corporate services. At one point, she worked three jobs. Nothing filled the hole.

Her mother once suggested that she go to college.

"I can't do that," she told her. "My kids are in college."

Why not?

Knox realized that her mom was right, so at 43, she enrolled in her first business class at LeTourneau University's satellite campus in Bedford. At 47, she graduated summa cum laude from LeTourneau and used her negotiating skills to launch a real estate career in Northeast Tarrant County.

"The older I get, the more sacrifices I can see she made," said Charla Killian, one of her daughters, who lives near Tyler. "She never had any time for herself. She did everything for us."

Casey Davis said, "Life was a three-ring circus every day. My mom defines devotion. The commitment she had to make to handle day-to-day life was incredible."

For her part, Knox wishes that she could have had more one-on-one time, getting to know each child, taking trips to the park or going for a walk, so she lavishes that attention on her 12 grandchildren. And now the quints, who all have children of their own, often call their mother with one astonished question.

"How," they ask her, "did you do this with five?"

Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056

Twitter: @sarahbfw