Arroyo Grande couple has two big reasons to give thanks

Tribune photo by Joe Johnston

The twin sisters run down the hallway of their Arroyo Grande home giggling, arms outstretched, flying like birds. The sprightly pair gear up for another stretch: Ready set go.

Alice and Lucy, 2, share a special connection. They play together, laugh together and protect one another.

Lisa and Stephen Davis glow as they watch their daughters interact. They are grateful for each moment — always aware that life could have been dramatically different.

Two years ago they almost lost their babies, twice, before they were even born.

Lisa underwent a pair of in utero surgeries to save the girls. One of those surgeries has been performed only a handful of times worldwide.

Little did the couple know that their journey into parenthood would be filled with medical firsts, personal miracles and milestones forever cherished.

“Today I look at them and I am completely dumbfounded of everything that happened,”Lisa said. “We are so lucky to have both of them.”

Some scary news

Lisa was just five months pregnant when, during a routine ultrasound, it was discovered the babies were at risk.

She had developed Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome — her identical twins were unevenly sharing their placenta, leaving one of the babies without enough nutrients to survive.

The syndrome causes one twin to give too much blood to the other.

“We were so concerned about having this organic, beautiful pregnancy,” Lisa said. “That all went out the window.”

Left untreated, there was a 95 percent chance that the smaller of the babies, Alice, would die. Essentially, without enough fluid in her sac, Alice was left shriveled and struggling to survive in Lisa’s womb.

Life-threatening complications, such as an enlarged heart, also threatened Lucy.“We were devastated,” Stephen said.

The couple traveled to Los Angeles to seek the laser treatment needed to save their unborn girls.

It was there, at the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, that they met their hero, Dr. Ramen Chmait, the director of fetal therapy at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles-University of Southern California Institute for Maternal and Fetal Health.

Chmait performed a laser coagulation surgery, saving the babies.

Stephen recalls the first ultrasound after the procedure.

“I just wanted to see two heartbeats,” he said. “And we did. And it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”

That elation was short-lived, however.

Chmait would soon discover that Lisa had vasa previa — a rare condition where a blood vessel from the placenta is trapped between the baby and the cervix.

The condition occurs only in 1 of about 2,500 pregnancies.

If Lisa’s water were to break, it would burst the vessel and the baby would die within minutes. The couple still had a long road ahead.

Waiting game

Lisa spent nine weeks on strict bed rest at home.

“It shook our world,” she said, adding that coming home knowing that her babies were still at risk made it the worst week of her life.

“I felt powerless. I hadn’t even seen their faces, heard their giggles, and I was already being tested. I cried for days — it was so hard knowing that I couldn’t fix them.”

Stephen, a meat cutter at Ralphs in Los Osos, would pack her lunch in a cooler and put it next to the couch before leaving for work each day.

“I didn’t have time to be devastated,” Stephen said. “I had to take care of them.”

At 29 weeks into the pregnancy, the couple returned to Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.

Lisa was kept on bed rest in the room closest to the operating door. The situation continued to worsen.

The stray blood vessel had separated from the uterine wall and was dangling. It was determined that the blood vessel was a major artery. The time needed to save the baby at risk was reduced to only seconds should Lisa go into labor.

Chmait took Lisa’s hand and told her that it was more dangerous for the babies to stay in the womb than to deliver them nearly 10 weeks premature.

“In Lisa’s case her cervix was shrinking and we made the decision to deliver the twins,” he said.

Stephen still cries when he tells the story.

“We just cried and hugged and talked and cried,” Stephen said. “We were both so scared.”

Late that night after the couple had finally settled, Chmait called. He wanted to do another laser surgery. But this one had been performed fewer than five times worldwide. And it had never been done so late in a pregnancy.

If the surgery worked, it would give the babies a chance to develop a little longer before they had to be delivered. If it failed, doctors would immediately deliver the babies.

Chmait performed the surgery the next morning.

It was a success, and the babies were left to grow, safe, in Lisa’s womb.

Happy ending

The twins arrived three weeks later on Sept. 23, 2008.

After hours of labor, Chmait delivered the girls by cesarean section. Lucy was born first, weighing 5 pounds, 14 ounces, and Alice followed two minutes later at 4 pounds, 14 ounces. When Stephen held the girls for the first time, he was smitten.

“Never in my life had everything felt so real and so perfect,” Stephen wrote in a journal post. “I was lost in love.”

Today, he still recalls holding them for the first time. He remembers cradling little Alice, touching her cheek.

And Lucy, who was having trouble breathing, with a tube down her throat, crying but not making a sound.

“She grabbed my finger,” Stephen said. “They were so tiny but so big.”

The babies were small but strong at 34 weeks old — three weeks shy of full term for twins. Less than a week later they were transferred by helicopter to the neonatal intensive care unit at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, where they spent only a week before going home.

The two years that followed have been filled with milestones: crawling, walking, first words and then sentences.

On a recent afternoon, Lucy sat in Stephen’s lap, snuggled close against his chest, sharing a meatloaf sandwich.

The couple has stayed in touch with Chmait and the nurses who cared for Lisa for the nearly six weeks she was in the hospital.

“He saved my babies twice,” Lisa said. “He will always be our hero.”

Chmait said his heart is warmed when he sees the twins now, vibrant and full of life. “I am blessed to have had the opportunity to help Lisa and her babies,” he said. “The real hero is Lisa. She fought for her babies — even though the prognosis was grim at times, she did what she had to do to help them.”

One day, when the girls are old enough to understand, Lisa and Stephen will share their story of survival with them.

For now, they spend their days grateful and in love.