It will be years before "the Marys" Mary Ellen and Mary Elizabeth Govea are old enough to play with Barbies. But the plastic doll is a visual element of their survival story.
When they were born in late April, they were smaller than she is, 1 pound 7 ounces and 1 pound 5 ounces respectively.
Their parents, Bo and Stacy Govea, show pictures of the girls next to the doll, an explanation-in-pictures of their progress. That they've outgrown the iconic toy is just one in a series of miracles, say the Goveas, of Overland Park, Kan.
The family has survived two premature births, a wearying sojourn in a strange town, long absences from work and the challenge of raising children from several states away. Now they're trying to figure out how to unite their family in one state and do it soon. They're exhausted and homesick.
"I'm planning a breakout," laughs Bo Govea, but he's not really kidding. He's desperate to go home a feeling understood by any family forced far afield by a medical emergency.
When Stacy was 19 weeks along, doctors discovered the babies had twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS), a potentially lethal condition caused when the fluid between identical twins with a shared placenta becomes unbalanced. Ellen had too much, Elizabeth too little, putting both lives in peril from risks like anemia, kidney failure, heart failure or stroke.
A doctor in nearby Kansas City said the girls needed specialized care not available there. Of the handful of programs that perform a laser procedure to treat TTTS nationally, specialists at St. Mark's Hospital offered to see them right away, so they hopped a plane to Salt Lake City.
Dr. Robert Ball and Dr. Michael Belfort at St. Mark's are the only specialists in the region who offer laser treatment for TTTS.
The Goveas' trip was to be quick, and they packed light. Fly in, have the procedure, rest overnight and fly home. They left their three other children home with grandparents and a "see you tomorrow." But preparing for the laser procedure, surgeon Ball found a greater fluid imbalance than expected, making the procedure even more risky. They discussed options, including perhaps putting efforts into saving just one of the Marys.
Stacy and Bo devout Catholics who will call their daughters by their middle names but named both after the Virgin Mary decided they'd ask for a miracle.
After the surgery, they waited, hoping they'd hear two heartbeats. They did. But fluid was also leaking, Ball says, and Stacy was hospitalized. The babies at that point were too small to survive birth.
They managed to fend off the births another three weeks.
The Marys were so small the Barbie dwarfed them in length. Bo's wedding ring slid up a tiny arm to the shoulder. And they had complications. Because she'd had little amniotic fluid, Elizabeth's bladder and kidneys weren't working. Doctors said she was unlikely to survive.
Friends and strangers scrambled to amass airline miles to send the other Govea kids, Megan, 14, Michael, 11, and Nicholas, 9, to meet their new sisters, perhaps for the last time.
As if on cue, her kidneys started working when they filed into the NICU for their first peek at her. She started to do better.
The other kids went home again. The hospital vigil continued. And five weeks after they arrived in Salt Lake City, Stacy and Bo decided it was "divide and conquer time," Stacy says. "We figured, he'll do the Kansas City kids. I'd do the Salt Lake kids."
Bo headed home, and she moved into Ronald McDonald House. "You see the box and drop a few coins in when you're at McDonald's," she says. "But you really have no idea ... "
Monday afternoon, Ellen was released, still on oxygen, but otherwise pretty healthy. Only time will tell if she'll have vision problems or cerebral palsy or other issues related to her rocky start. Elizabeth needs intensive care for a few more weeks.
But school's starting back home, and the older kids are struggling because they miss their mom. While Bo and Stacy love Utah and talk about the kindness of strangers who have become dear including St. Mark's nurses who are now much-loved friends they long for home.
Still, it's complicated. Ellen's out, but they're having trouble arranging a commercial flight since she's still on oxygen.
They'd like Elizabeth in an intensive care unit closer to home, but she can't fly commercially, and their insurance won't pay to get her home on a medical transport. They think they've found a special transport that will take her, but fuel costs are high. They're weighing all sorts of options, none of them ideal.
"They're not in perfect condition to go home, but they won't be for a long time," Stacy says. "But the other kids need us all together again. This takes a huge toll."23 comments on this story
Stacy may opt to fly home during the week, leaving Elizabeth in the tender care of doctors and nurses she loves and trusts, returning on weekends. It's one of those decisions you can't understand unless you're forced to make it, she says.To learn more about the girls, go to www.goveaprogress.wordpress.com.
Editor's note: The Govea family made it home to Kansas. You can see their arrival online at www.myfoxkc.com/myfox/pages/News/Detail?contentId=7210122&version=3&locale=EN-US&layoutCode=VSTY&pageId=3.2.1.