By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist
Aaron Yates said that before his 40th birthday he had all his theology in a neat little box — full of hopes and full of prayers.
And then going “over the hill” turned out to be more than just one hill — it became an emotional rollercoaster more tumultuous than he could’ve ever expected.
Around that time, he moved his family to Orlando, Florida, to start a good, new season. Then his brother died suddenly of an overdose.
“That kind of rattled me,” said Aaron Yates, an ordained Southern Baptist pastor currently serving as the head of the Bible department at Orangewood Christian School in Maitland, Florida. “It made me question and walk through a lot of things. It was a test on my faith, and it warmed me up to dealing with some things with God that I had never dealt with before.”
Then came the next hill and valley.
His wife, Amanda, found out she was expecting. They already had three children — two biological and one adopted — and were about to begin the process of adopting a fourth child when they heard the news. They had been told they wouldn’t be able to have more biological children.
“We were really surprised,” said Aaron Yates, who also served as youth pastor at Bluff Springs Baptist Church, Ashford, in Southeast Alabama Baptist Association, while attending the Baptist College of Florida.
Then they found out they might have twins. But something didn’t look quite right.
At eight weeks they found out the twins were conjoined.
“We just sat in the car and cried. It was heartbreaking,” Amanda Yates said.
And as they cranked the car, MercyMe’s song “Even If” came on — a song that closes with the lyrics to “It Is Well With My Soul.”
“We began to pray, ‘God, whatever You want,’” Amanda Yates said.
The couple believed they knew immediately one thing He didn’t want — for them to terminate the pregnancy. As they went from doctor to doctor, the idea of ending the pregnancy was pitched around a lot, Aaron Yates said. “We knew that wasn’t an option for us.”
And the rollercoaster rocketed on.
They found a doctor who was willing to take on the challenge of surgery to separate the girls. Then they had to go before an ethics committee to get permission to attempt it.
“It’s amazing that you can terminate them before they’re born anytime you want if you go to the right state, but for division surgery you have to go before an ethics committee to talk about their quality of life,” Aaron Yates said.
The decision for division wasn’t about getting an ideal life — it was about keeping the girls alive, Aaron Yates said. They couldn’t survive sharing a heart. Division was the only option.
“Each conjoined case is unique and it does create some ethical conundrums you never would imagine you would have to consider,” he said.
They got the green light.
But things stayed rocky. Leading up to the birth, Amanda Yates went in every week for tests, and every time the doctors felt they saw something different.
They thought the twin girls were conjoined at the liver and heart. Then they thought each one might have her own heart, which would give them both a better chance of survival. Then they thought they might be able to save one, but not both. Then they thought they might be born without a cerebellum.
“We found out through all of this that they’re wrong a lot of times, that looking at a sonogram is like looking at a mud puddle,” Adam Yates said. “They projected so many things with our pregnancy that didn’t happen. Sometimes we would leave hopeful and sometimes not.”
For Amanda Yates, the back and forth was a painful ride.
“We went through that whole nine months without having any (baby) showers. We didn’t set up a nursery,” she said.
When she would run into strangers at the grocery store and they would ask her how far along she was or if she was excited, she didn’t know how to respond.
“It was like I’m carrying these babies, but we aren’t able to rejoice about it,” she said. “It was an interesting perspective for me. You don’t ever think when you see someone who’s pregnant that her baby might not make it.”
She said she and Aaron knew God was in charge of their story. They tenaciously hoped and prayed that their babies would live.
And when the girls were born Aug. 28, 2017, by C-section — with a chaotic room full of medical staff at the ready — Amanda Yates listened for her babies’ cries even while fighting for her own life on the operating room table.
She didn’t hear them.
“I thought they were dead,” she said. “Then I heard a little cry — one was crying.”
And the doctors whisked them away.
Amanda Yates had lost a lot of blood but was stable. The girls — Ashlyn Hope and Adalyn Rose — were stable too. They were born conjoined at the heart and the liver. They both had totally normal brains.
But they were a lot more fragile than expected.
‘Another sad thing’
For three weeks, the baby girls stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit, and the couple visited them daily. The girls fought hard, but rather than getting strong enough for doctors to attempt surgery, over time they faded. Their blood pressure began to drop and they began to get infections.
“We didn’t get to hold them for the first time until they were passing away because they were so hooked up to machines,” Amanda Yates said. “That was another sad thing. We didn’t get to hold them right after they were born — not until they were dying.”
Clinging to Jesus
Aaron Yates agreed.
“We were there the night they removed life support,” he said. “We held them as they went to Jesus. It was a rough three weeks leading up to that — we knew it would be a miracle if they survived. We grieved the whole time.”
But Aaron Yates said that in the forge of his brother’s death he had learned to cling to Jesus when things didn’t make sense.
“We preach these pain-free lives, but there are some ugly parts in the Bible about suffering,” he said. “This whole experience has made God more tangible to us. We see Him as life and breath. He’s not a crutch — He’s a stretcher.”
And they trust God is working things together for their good, even if they don’t see what He is doing until they get to heaven, he said.
“This has definitely brought us closer to God,” he said. “We rest on the fact that He is good. Life here is unpredictable, but this is not it. There is more to come (in eternity). We’re in a different place now. We don’t cling to this world as much.”
More unexpected valleys have come even since the girls died Sept. 19, 2017. Aaron Yates’ mother was diagnosed with cancer.
The journey the family has been on has anchored them even more deeply to the truths of their faith that they knew and were sure of, Aaron Yates said.
Amanda Yates agreed. “It was challenging but also strengthening,” she said. “I never would’ve imagined going through something like this. But I know God has a reason and a purpose for it.”
Part of the purpose Aaron and Amanda can already see are the friendships they have formed with other families who are expecting or have lost conjoined twins. Amanda Yates has been able to befriend a number of families through Facebook groups, even meeting up with some of them to swap stories and talk about their hope.
Some of them have babies with a better chance of survival. Others are walking the same road of grief as the Yateses.
For all of them, Amanda Yates included, it’s been a tough journey. She still has a big C-section scar that reminds her she came home from a painful hospital stay empty-handed.
“Sometimes it feels like a bad dream and I think — did it really happen? But it did happen and God brought us through,” she said.
Candace McIntosh, executive director of Alabama Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU), said the Yateses’ story has been a testimony of hope to the people around them.
“I have watched them grow from teenagers who desired to follow hard after God to young adults living out that same faith in their marriage and raising their children,” said McIntosh, who was mentored by Aaron Yates’ mother, Florida’s WMU president back when McIntosh was serving in Florida.
‘At the feet of Jesus’
When the Yateses were faced with the “heart-wrenching” news about their little girls, “they met every moment at the feet of Jesus,” McIntosh said.
“As they trusted the giver of life for their daughters, from a distance I watched God use their testimony to speak truth to those around them, always lifting high the name of Jesus,” she said. “The legacy of their precious girls lives on day by day through the unwavering faith displayed by their parents.”
The Yateses are now back in the process of becoming foster parents and possibly adopting through the Florida Baptist Children’s Homes. The road has had more bumps than they ever could’ve imagined, but they know God has them right where they are for His purpose — and their good.
“We just want people to know God is in control. We knew God was in charge of our story,” Amanda Yates said.
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