Medical miracles combine with old-fashioned ones for Ascension family
by Kara Hansen
The symbols of new life are everywhere in the sacrament of baptism: the flowing water, the chrism oil, and the pure, white beeswax of the baptismal candle.
But Ascension parishioners needed none of the traditional symbols to remind them of the miracle of new life they were celebrating at this Sept. 28 baptism.
It all began at Stacy Govea’s 22-week checkup in April. At Stacy’s 19-week sonogram, her twin babies were coming along beautifully. Her doctor told Stacy and her husband Bo that things were going so well she did not need to be seen for another three weeks.
Those three weeks changed everything for the Govea family. By the time they came back for their next check up at 22 weeks, Stacy was measuring the same size as a woman 39 weeks pregnant. Something was clearly wrong.
The doctor diagnosed the unborn Govea babies with a rare and extremely serious disease called twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS). The couple felt blindsided.
“One appointment we were doing great, and three weeks later we were devastated,” said Stacy.
The diagnosis affects roughly 15 percent of identical twins in utero. Twins with a diagnosis of TTTS share the same placenta and therefore share blood circulation. One twin often ends up with a higher blood volume and higher level of amniotic fluid, while the other has decreased blood volume and amniotic fluid. Both situations cause major problems for each twin. For that reason, the mortality rate for twins with TTTS is high — an estimated 60-100 percent. To make matters worse, a tear had developed in Stacy’s uterus.
“We were told this was very serious for both the babies and Stacy,” said Bo. “The doctor told us there was a high likelihood Stacy could go into cardiac arrest and die from complications with the disease, so we had to jump on this right away.”
Since few hospitals across the country are equipped to perform the surgeries needed for TTTS, the Goveas’ options were limited. A doctor at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City was able to see the couple the following day, so the couple quickly made arrangements for relatives to take their older children — Megan, 14; Michael, 11; and Nicholas, 9.
“We had no idea what to expect,” said Bo. “Before our flight, we took our kids to the adoration chapel and asked God for strength to get through this together.”
Once in Utah, the Goveas learned there was a 28 percent growth differential between their unborn daughters, Mary Ellen and Mary Elizabeth. Generally, doctors like to see a 20 percent or less disparity to maximize the chances of survival in a TTTS procedure.
“A lot of doctors won’t operate if the discordance is over 20 percent because they like to protect their success rate,” said Bo. “We definitely felt God’s hand in bringing us to the right hospital, because they agreed to operate and do what they could to give our girls a chance.”
Still, doctors gave the couple a 60-80 percent chance of one of their daughters surviving the surgery. One.
With the twins now in the hands of the doctors, the couple put their hope in the Lord.
‘One more day’
The news that the delicate in-utero surgery had been a complete success — that indeed, both twins had come through it with flying colors — was greeted with relief not only by the Govea family but by the entire Ascension community. And though Mary Ellen and Mary Elizabeth were not out of the woods yet, Bo and Stacy had reason to hope a little more as each day passed.
“We just kept praying for one more day,” said Stacy “and we asked others to do the same. Each day we were there we would pray, cry, hope, and wait to hear each baby’s heartbeat and know they were still with us.”
Bo and Stacy had planned to return home to Overland Park soon after the surgery. But then Stacy began leaking amniotic fluid and was immediately put on bed rest in Salt Lake City.
From there on, it was a waiting game. Stacy had to carry Mary Ellen and Mary Elizabeth until they were at least 24 weeks old, the standard for viability in premature babies.
“We were counting down to 24 weeks,” remembers Bo. “One day the neonatologist came and spoke with us and said if the girls came before 24 weeks, he would not even attempt to save them.”
Moreover, because with TTTS one twin grows significantly larger and stronger than the other, it is not uncommon for medical staff to focus its efforts and energies on saving the twin with the better chance of survival.
But Bo and Stacy were having none of that.
“The next time he came back to our room,” said Bo, “we told the doctor we had decided we were leaving that hospital with both our girls and didn’t want to discuss any other options.”
“We were going for both, against all odds,” Stacy confirmed.
And the Goveas knew exactly what they needed to help their daughters beat those odds: prayer.
“We got the word out right away because we needed prayer for our little girls,” said Bo. “We asked people to pray for a miracle and to ask for St. Jude’s intercession as the patron of hopeless causes.
“It was our last shot at extending the pregnancy and keeping the girls safe.”
Friends and fellow parishioners took it from there. Mike Harper, for example, set up a Web log, or blog, for the Goveas called “The Marys’” Hope, which wound up serving a dual purpose. First, it kept family and friends, desperate for news of how things were going in Salt Lake City, up-to-date.
But it also turned out to be place where Bo and Stacy could turn for comfort and inspiration when, in response to their prayer requests, they were literally deluged with support.
‘Lifting us up’
“It was kind of a lonely time for us,” recalls Stacy, “so having the blog was a way for us to be connected with others who let us know they were praying for us.
“And we felt the prayers moving in our lives — that people were supporting us and lifting us up.”
Ascension pastor Msgr. Tom Tank said his congregation was quick to start storming heaven when reports that Stacy and the twins were at risk made the rounds.
“When news came that there were difficulties with the pregnancy,” he said, “the obvious concern was expressed for the welfare of the twins and the whole Govea family.
“A lot of prayers were beginning to be sent heavenward and lots of love westward to Salt Lake City.”
Bed rest was a challenge to Stacy; she was used to the hustle and bustle of daily life with three children.
But by far the greater hardship was being away so long from those children.
“It was really hard,” said Stacy, “because our three kids were still in school, and there was a lot I missed.”
Fellow parishioners made certain, however, that Stacy would have a front-row seat at one of the milestones that mattered to her most — her son Nicholas’ first Communion.
“Since Stacy was not able to attend,” explained Msgr. Tank, “a couple of the parishioners set up a webcam transmission so that she could join in the celebration from Salt Lake City.”
But that was only one of the many ways that Ascension parishioners stepped in to smooth the way for the Govea family. From the frequent flier miles and hotel points they donated, to the gifts, letters, and care packages they sent, members of the faith community made sure the Goveas felt their constant and prayerful support.
Although much of the support was spiritual — many gathered together to pray rosaries for the twins — much of it was practical. Every evening meal, from April through October, was organized by Ascension parishioners. A neighbor and fellow parishioner mowed the family’s yard all summer long.
“I think there was this huge sense of community in our parish because we were all able to work together and live out what it means to ‘do unto others,’” said parishioner Heather Harper.
‘Power of faith’
Through the grace of God and the miracle of modern medicine, Mary Ellen and Mary Elizabeth were born at 25 weeks gestation via emergency C-section.
But the hard-won victory only saw the battle move to another front.
“We got off the twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome train and hopped right on the micro-preemie roller coaster,” said Bo.
Both girls were too fragile, of course, to be transported home. So after their delivery, the Goveas merely moved out of one part of the Salt Lake City hospital and into another — the neonatal intensive care unit of St. Mark’s.
The couple found that words could hardly express to friends and family back home how tiny the twins were. The babies were so small that Bo could slide his wedding ring up either of the girls’ arms all the way to her shoulder.
Soon after birth, doctors told Bo and Stacy that Mary Elizabeth’s kidneys were not functioning correctly. If they did not start working within 24-48 hours, the doctors said, she would die.
The Goveas made immediate arrangements for their older three children to fly out to Utah to meet their sisters. Then, as they had throughout the ordeal, the couple turned to prayer and asked others to do the same through their blog.
On an average day, the blog received 300 hits. The night they asked for prayers for Mary Elizabeth, the blog received 8,000.
“It seemed like we were running out of time. But the next day the doctor came in and told us Elizabeth had full renal function,” said Bo. “We started thanking him, and he said, ‘I didn’t do it — Elizabeth did. There was nothing we could do for her.’
“It was truly a miracle. And I know those prayers are what turned the corner.”
Bo and Stacy continued to try to parent their entire brood throughout the summer — taking turns and splitting their time between the bedside of the twins in Utah and their home in Overland Park. It was a struggle to keep things on an even keel, particularly through the medical ups and downs of the preemie twins.
“The rosary was my salvation,” explained Stacy. “Whenever I was lonely or scared, I turned to the Blessed Mother. It was the only way I made it through.”
But day by day, she saw the girls growing stronger.
“It was absolutely overwhelming to see them developing and to see God’s creation process unfolding, since the girls were at an age where they should have still been in utero,” said Stacy. “It’s so hard to believe there are babies out there aborted at their age.”
In August, Ellen (both twins will go by their middle names) was doing well enough for doctors to discharge her from the hospital. The Goveas were thrilled to be able to bring one of the babies home. But the fact that Elizabeth was not yet ready for discharge created a logistical nightmare.
Bo and Stacy first made arrangements to fly both girls home on a commercial airline that could meet the girls’ oxygen needs, and planned to have Elizabeth admitted to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., upon arrival. But when that flight was cancelled, the doctors then refused to discharge the twins at all, insisting that Elizabeth needed a physician to accompany her during the transfer.
The situation was starting to look hopeless.
But then, with the help of prayer and — again — their blog, a series of small miracles started rolling in.
A family friend from out of town — who happened to be a neonatologist — offered to travel with the family from Salt Lake City to Kansas City. Another friend at Ascension donated the use of a private plane. Two more Ascension parishioners donated their time and services as pilots. And, finally, a special collection raised $5,000 for the fuel.
“A lot of people really pulled together to make this happen,” said parishioner Jerry Dreyer.
But many of the people who offered support to the Govea family in its time of need found themselves receiving as much as they gave, deeply moved by the couple’s profound faith.
“Bo’s strong faith was really shocking to me,” said Harper. “When Mary Elizabeth was really struggling, he said, ‘My main goal as a parent is to get my children to heaven. And if this is what God wants, I will let her go back to him.’”
It was not only his strength in the face of this terrible adversity, she said, that so impressed her, but his acceptance of God’s will.
“He was so at peace with it,” she said. Dreyer agreed.
“I think one thing we have all taken home is an admiration of the power of faith. Bo and Stacy were so strong in accepting what God had in mind for them. It was encouraging and amazing to see,” he said.
Mary Ellen and Mary Elizabeth arrived home on Aug. 14, just in time to see their older siblings — Megan, Michael and Nicholas— off for the first day of school.
“My goal all along had been to be back home for the first day of school, and it was so amazing to finally see that come together. We need each other and do better together as a unit. It was so good to be home,” said Stacy.
Though the twins will still have medical follow-up, they are healthy and well, and the family is busily adjusting to the sleepless nights and chaotic days that usually accompany twin infants.
Despite the struggles along the way, however, the Goveas say they feel incredibly blessed by their experience.
“We have this bond now because we’ve all experienced this miracle together as a family,” said Megan, “and we went through this together.”
Bo hopes the example he and Stacy have set will stick with their children for many years to come.
“This was by far the most difficult thing we have ever had to go through in our lives,” said Bo.
“I hope that our kids remember that at a difficult time, when things could have easily seemed hopeless,” he added, “we turned to God and put it into his hands.”