Mom recalls her conjoined twins’ risky separation surgery

When Alyson Irwin, 35, went for a 20-week scan she got some incredible news. She tells her story in her own words.

As we walked into the sonography room, my husband Phil, then 31, and I were brimming with excitement.

We’d already had one scan where everything has seemed normal.

Parents to Kennedy, 2, we were thrilled to be adding to our family and were very keen to find out if she’d have a little brother or a sister.

But my 20-week scan had barely begun before the sonographer disappeared to find a doctor.

My stomach churned. They only do that when something was terribly wrong, I thought.

But the news we heard stunned me into silence.

“You’re carrying conjoined twins,” the doctor said.

What? How was this possible? I broke down in tears.

We had so many heartbreaking questions. Would the babies live? What would their lives be like?

Thankfully, the next day we met a new team of experts, who had some answers.

We found out we were having twin girls – and they were connected at the chest, from their sternum to their belly buttons.

Alyson Irwin’s twin daughters, Sarabeth and Amelia, were born conjoined.

They shared a liver, but we weren’t sure if they shared a heart. If they did, they could never be separated.

Only one in every 100,000 to 200,000 babies are conjoined in this way.

It was devastating to hear that, of the few who survive delivery, many die shortly after birth.

For weeks, I’d wake every day sure I’d had a horrible nightmare, only to remember that it was all real.

“Everything will be OK,” Phil said.

But I couldn’t let myself to believe it. Instead, to protect myself, I prepared myself for the worst.

Then at 25 weeks, we learned some wonderful news.

The girls didn’t share a heart. There was a chance they could be separated.

It was a ray of hope. All I wanted was for the girls to have full, independent lives.

Talking to Kennedy about her soon-to-be-born sisters we gently explained: “Mummy has your two sisters inside her tummy, but they’re stuck together.”

The entire staff at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital were fantastic, some sewing two dolls together at the chest so Kennedy understood what her sisters looked like.

She was delighted by the idea of little sisters, and her pure happiness gave me hope.

Alyson Irwin’s twin daughters, Sarabeth and Amelia, were born conjoined.
Sarabeth and Amelia’s separation surgery grew complicated as it was scheduled at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in February of 2020.

Maybe everything really will be OK, I thought.

At 33 weeks, the blood flow in my umbilical cord suddenly dropped. It was time for the girls to be born.

Wheeled into the delivery room on June 11, 2019, I was surrounded by a huge medical team.

All I could do was keep breathing and try to stay calm.

Before I knew it, our girls Sarabeth and Amelia were born, locked in an embrace.

But I only caught a quick glimpse before they were whisked away to the NICU.

Even so, I felt such a huge rush of love and relief for my tiny daughters.

Our miracle girls had made it this far, I thought.

The plan was to separate them when they were around six months old.

Before that, nearly three months after they were born, we were finally able to take our beautiful daughters home.

Raising the twins was joyous, but them being conjoined brought its challenges.

With two wriggly babies we had to be incredibly fast at changing nappies – and make sure they didn’t steal each other’s dummies!

But they were incredible. Born conjoined they didn’t know any other way to be and we were loving life as a family of five.

The twins’ surgery was scheduled for February 2020. But just before we were due to go to the hospital, disaster struck.

The girls caught pneumonia, then the COVID-19 pandemic began.

As the twins grew, waiting brought with it so many fears about the surgery.

What would the physical and emotional impact of their separation be? Would there be complications? Would they feel lonely?

Finally, in August 2020, the girls were taken down for their operation. Due to COVID restrictions, Phil and I waited anxiously in the hospital car park.

When my phone began to ring, my heart stopped, terrified of bad news.

‘Alyson, we’re close to finishing the reconstruction,’ the calm voice on the other end said. ‘The surgeon is just making their two belly buttons.’

Dizzy with relief, I burst into tears.

Our two precious girls had been joined for 14 months. Now their new life could finally begin.

Walking into their recovery room and seeing them apart for the first time was incredible.

“You’re so brave, my girls,” I told them both, as they lay in their separate beds.

It was two long weeks before I could hold them, and when I cradled each of the girls in my arms, my heart almost burst with joy.

Just one month after the operation, Sarabeth and Amelia came home.

We thought they might want to stay close to one other, but they adored having their own space and exploring.

Now almost three, they run, read, play and laugh, with Kennedy by their side. It’s the most wonderful sight.

But we’ll never forget the journey we’ve taken.

We will teach Sarabeth and Amelia to be proud of the scars that run down their chests.

It’s a reminder of how strong and independent they are, and I want them to wear them with pride.

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