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Too-short lives of Indiana twins touched many

by on June 26, 2014 10:55 AM

No one expected the story to end this soon.

At the same time, the odds were against it lasting this long.

Andrew and Garrett Stancombe, the twin sons of Michelle Van Horne and Kody Stancombe, of Indiana, had made it to their 76th day when they passed away early Tuesday morning at their home.

Medical science called them thoracopagus twins and gave them, at best, a 25 percent chance of living more than a day.

More commonly, they were called conjoined twins — by a biological quirk, identical boys halted during their division from a single fertilized egg to two separate embryos in their first few weeks of development.

But many called them blessings. Some even called them miracle babies.

No other newborns captured the area’s attention like Andrew and Garrett, who were joined from the top of their chest to their belly button. They lived face to face, positioned for a perpetual hug.

Just being formed that way made Garrett and Andrew’s birth a 1-in-200,000 kind of thing, researchers say.

And being formed that way also made it virtually impossible for doctors to attempt to separate them and have both survive.

Although identical twins, their hearts were not. A small, weak heart, only discovered through ultrasounds late in Michelle’s pregnancy, wouldn’t be enough to keep either alive. So they shared a liver, and lived off the power of a single healthy heart and common bloodstream.

They shared a blend of middle names, too.

Andrew Donovan Lee Stancombe had his father’s middle name first, and Garrett Lee Donovan Stancombe had his mother’s middle name first.

From their birth, the twins gave people hope.

Before their birth, there were people who gave Garrett and Andrew no chance.

One medical professional advised an abortion, soon after sonograms revealed Michelle’s developing twins were conjoined.

“I believe that just because there’s a bump in the road, it doesn’t mean you should just give up,” she said in an interview in March. “So I’m willing to sit there and fight everything for my children, regardless of the outcome.”

Garrett and Andrew’s well-orchestrated birth — they were delivered by Cesarean section at a scheduled hour just after sunrise April 10, by an obstetric team including neonatal intensive care specialists at Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown — was quickly celebrated once Michelle and Kody were sure they were OK and announced their arrival.

Although the twins were born at 36 weeks of pregnancy instead of 40, there was no need for special postnatal care or an incubator. They were discharged on the same schedule that a healthy, full-term baby would have followed.

And their celebrity status grew.

Andrew and Garrett could rank with Jimmy Stewart as the Indiana County-born people whose faces have seen by the most people worldwide.

Nationally circulated newspapers and magazines, and infotainment shows on network television featured their story.

In their brief lives, Garrett and Andrew were part of special family celebrations.

They were 31 days old when Michelle had Mother’s Day with them. And Kody had Father’s Day with them when they were 66 days old.

Garrett and Andrew’s big brother, Riley, celebrated his second birthday on May 30 holding the twins and smiling for photos with them.

They treated every day with their new sons as a special day. It was a prescription for coping with uncertainty.

“In the last conversation with the doctor, he said he wasn’t expecting for us to all be going home,” Van Horne said in an interview in April (soon after they were born). “He told us to live every day, day by day, and to make the best of it. Because we don’t know — they could be with us one minute, and the next minute not be here.”

And for what could have been treated as a spectacle or aroused a carnival sideshow atmosphere, there was no evidence of that.

Nearly every day, as evidenced on Michelle’s Facebook page, relatives and friends were shown in photos with the boys — adoring them, loving them, reveling in the way they seemed to be beating the odds.

Until the boys took a turn this week.

Michelle said it was Monday, the day she returned to work for the first time since before giving birth.

She learned late that afternoon that the boys were having trouble breathing. Kody and a nurse from the Visiting Nurse Association of Indiana County kept them comfortable and Michelle returned home.

The boys passed away about 4 a.m. Tuesday, she said.

Michelle and Kody spent the day quietly, contacting relatives and close friends, then disclosing their sad news on Facebook just after midnight.

“Our precious little boys have gone up to heaven,” Michelle posted. “We thank everyone who followed every step with the boys and have shown their support. We highly appreciate all the prayer and donations. Also, thank you to the few friends and family members that have been with us throughout this beautiful journey with our boys.”

They also quickly made modest funeral arrangements with Rairigh-Bence in Indiana, scheduling visitation for family and friends for just two hours this evening, and drafting their sons’ obituary.

It was a story they hadn’t expected to write so soon.

“We’re happy in knowing we had these special little boys with us,” Michelle said. “And now… they may be gone but in a way we know they’re not gone from us.”

[PHOTO: Andrew Stancombe, left, and Garrett Stancombe, right, slept in their home April 17, when they were seven days old. (Jamie Empfield/Gazette photo)]

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.
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