BALTIMORE — Courtney Stewart didn't believe the reunion was truly going to happen until she caught sight of the medical airplane on the tarmac outside Atlanta, readying for the transport of her two small twins to Baltimore.
"It was surreal," Stewart, 29, recalled Wednesday. Her husband, Pfc. Mark Stewart, has been stationed at Fort Meade since August, keeping him away from his wife and their fragile, premature twins. "It wasn't until we saw the transport team come in, and we got in the ambulance and we saw the airplane, that I believed it was real."
Born in February at the age of 23 weeks, Mark Jr. and Isabella Stewart have required extensive medical treatment ever since. Isabella went home in June but has been readmitted to the hospital three times, and Mark Jr. has been hospitalized since birth. Because of their condition, they and their mother remained in Atlanta as their father, who works in logistics with the Army, was transferred to Fort Riley in Kansas and then to Fort Meade.
"He's been a phone call away instead of a hug or a shoulder to cry on when your child is getting pricked or prodded," Courtney Stewart said of the separation. "Every day is not promised, whether you're sick or well, but when you're in a [neonatal intensive care unit] for the majority of your life, ... it's a big deal."
Having her two older children, Trevion, 10, and Mariah, 7, staying with her husband in Maryland made things all the more difficult.
On Monday, much of that stress washed away, when she and the twins landed at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Weeks before, a family friend reached out to Air Compassion for Veterans, a nonprofit that provides flights and other transportation for service members, veterans and their families. The organization picked up the bill for their medical transport — the air ambulance amounted to more than $8,000 — from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston to Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
"To think of the hardship on this family, being separated and her living in the hospital with the twins and the dad being sent elsewhere and them having no hope and no means of bridging that gap, and bringing their family back together again," said Suzanne Rhodes, a spokeswoman for Mercy Medical Airlift, the umbrella organization that launched Air Compassion for Veterans in 2006. "We just think it's a blessing for us to be that bridge."
Since 2006, the organization said, it has assisted with more than 300 air ambulance missions and more than 36,000 commercial flights, and helped more than 40,000 service members and their families.
The family is now living at Fort Meade, planning for a possible homecoming for Isabella next week and, soon after, a transfer for Mark Jr. to a rehabilitation hospital, where he will continue to be weened off his ventilator.
Isabella will need surgery to close a hole in her heart, and Mark Jr.'s path to strengthened lungs will take time. But according to Sara Mixter, a senior resident at Hopkins, the twins are "growing and developing really well," and it's possible the family will be together for Christmas — not just in the same state, but under the same roof.
That, Courtney Stewart said, means the world to the entire family.
On Monday night, Stewart's first in Baltimore, her daughter Mariah — used to her mother departing after quick visits from the twins' bedside — asked, "Can you sleep over?"
"It was good to tell her, 'This is official,' " Stewart said. "'We're going to be together. We're going to be a family.'"