The first two doctors Chelsea and Nick Torres saw told the couple Chelsea was not even pregnant. The third urged them to choose abortion.
It was July 10 — nearly a month after Chelsea first found out she was pregnant with various take-home pregnancy tests — when a doctor finally found a heartbeat on the ultrasound, the first time a doctor confirmed what Chelsea had known for weeks. But there was a caveat, the doctor told them: She was pregnant with conjoined twins.
And then he advised the couple it would be best to abort the babies.
It would have been the easy way out for 23-year-old Chelsea, who was just finishing an externship in her last semester of veterinary school, and her 22-year-old husband, an assistant manager at the Family Dollar where they lived in Blackfoot, Idaho. The couple, married two years ago but together since meeting in junior high, already had a three-year-old son, and they were told the medical complications that come with conjoined twins can not only tear apart families, but may also require them to uproot their lives to fight for the babies’ survival. The twins were likely to die in utero at eight weeks anyway, they were told, and if not, then they were much more likely to be stillborn than be born alive.
They were asked, did they really understand what they were getting into?
They decided to wait. Eight weeks came and went, and then came week 13, and the babies were alive and healthy. Chelsea says she couldn’t go through with the abortion, that it just simply was not an option for her and Nick. Now, 23 weeks into her pregnancy, she and Nick have in fact uprooted their lives and moved from Idaho to Houston in order to have access to some of the best doctors in the country trained to deliver and, if necessary, separate conjoined twins at Texas Children’s Hospital. Chelsea and Nick are calling the journey “Beating the Odds with Callie and Carter” — the two names they’ve picked out for the baby twin girls.
"Our pregnancy started off bad, because the first doctor told us there was no way there was a baby in there, because his test was never wrong," Nick said. "We just walked out of that place, and we weren’t going to believe what the doctors said at that point. We just stuck to our gut feeling, and lo and behold now there’s two of them."
Conjoined twins are an extremely rare phenomenon, occurring in only one in 200,000 live births, according to data from the University of Maryland Medical Center. About 40 to 60 percent are stillborn, and the overall survival rate is between 5 and 25 percent. The most common types of conjoined twins share a heart or are joined at the chest, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — but that also makes these twins the most likely not to survive, given they share vital organs. According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, there are no known survivors among twins sharing a heart.
Doctors have told the Torres family, however, that their twins have a greater chance of survival given that they share no vital organs. The babies are an extremely rare set of conjoined twins, called “omphalo-ischiopagus,” meaning they will be conjoined at the hip: They’ll share a set of legs, then have their own torsos and two arms each; doctors say part of their diaphragm is attached, their livers are likely fused, and intestines intertwined — though Chelsea said doctors informed her nothing appears life-threatening. Less than 5 percent of conjoined twins are of the ischiopagus family, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and even fewer are also combined with the omphalopagus family, like the Torres babies, in which the twins’ torsos face each other.
“Seeing them always helps,” Chelsea said, her son’s cartoons blaring in the background in their cozy RV near NRG Stadium. “The pictures I have, they’re smiling in some of them, and on the MRIs you can see their little tongues. I guess it’s the little things, watching them form — we’ve seen them when there was nothing to when they were little blobs, and going almost every week and watched them grow.”
The life-changing transition, though, has turned out to be harder than the couple expected. When they arrived in Houston, they at first stayed in the Ronald McDonald house for 45 days, the maximum time allowed, and then purchased a trailer and are now living in an RV park with their three-year-old, Jaysin. While Nick’s bosses at Family Dollar assured him he could transfer down to a Family Dollar in Houston, once he arrived, the position was eliminated, and Nick was left jobless. Looking for work, he is transparent about his situation with all of his potential employers, telling them he cannot miss a single doctor’s appointment with his wife, some of which can last as long as eight hours.
“Plus, because our luck is so great, the computer we’ve been using to hunt for jobs crashed on us the other day,” Chelsea said. As Nick continues to look for work, the family’s source of income to cover the $900-a-month trailer rental has been their savings and proceeds from a GoFundMe fundraiser for the babies.
Despite the added stressors, Chelsea and Nick said they're still happy they chose to keep going — but understand why other people choose not to.
"It wasn’t easy moving [Jaysin] three times in two months — he has zero idea what’s going on. And then taking [Nick] away from his job. I was gonna graduate this year. And we just went from our two-story house where we raised Jaysin and now we’re just like, ‘Here you go — here’s the new 'bus house,' as he calls it. 'Here’s the new bus house and have fun.’”
Chelsea said that their days, largely confined to the RV and taking walks outside, mostly revolve around looking forward to the next doctor’s appointments. The general surgeon at Texas Children’s, who successfully separated a pair of conjoined twins last year, has put together a team of specialists including a gynecologist, a cardiologist, a urologist, and orthopedic and gastrointestinal specialists, all of whom Chelsea said she must meet with routinely. In a few weeks, she will begin seeing doctors every single day.
Before, Chelsea was almost certain she wanted to separate the twins, but now she’s not so sure it’s the best option for them — at least not right away. Doctors, she said, are still not certain whether the twins will share the same pelvis or will each have a tiny pelvis. If the latter is the case, it would make separation difficult: How would the twins walk with only one leg, half a pelvis and no hip joint for a prosthetic? Making it possible would be a complicated procedure, Chelsea said, and on top of it, from what she has learned from a few mothers across the country with conjoined twins, the children will be in pain for a very long time — something she does not want to place upon her babies.
For now, she said, all she can think about is making it to delivery, and keeping the babies healthy enough to make it.
“It’s on my mind every day. Constantly, every day,” she said. “Some days are better than others. Yesterday was bad. Sometimes I just break down in the middle of Toys 'R' Us, which I did yesterday. Sometimes I play different scenarios in my head, thinking what if they’re not gonna be here, and we did all of this — not for nothing, but we tried our best and it still didn’t work, it didn’t happen.”
Still, she said she tries not to think about the odds — because as she and Nick like to remind each other, the doctors have been wrong before.