Days before their second birthday, Erika and Eva Sandoval of Antelope are in their first legal battle as conjoined twins – a fight for the right to fly on an airplane in their mother’s lap.
The twins, who are conjoined at the sternum, pelvis and sacrum, are hoping to go see their 19-year-old big brother, Emilio, graduate from a military program in San Antonio on Aug. 25 – about two weeks after they turn 2. The family started to book flights but quickly encountered a problem: After their second birthdays, infants can no longer be considered lap babies and must fly in their own seats or not at all, per Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
Erika and Eva, who ride in a special lying-down car bed when they travel by road, face one another at all times and cannot sit properly in an airplane seat, said their mother, Aida Sandoval. The FAA has asked the Sandovals to file a petition for exemption, which is open for public comment on its website until Monday.
Aida, 47, said she knew when she had the twins that there would be bumps in the road. She is advertising the girls’ petition on a special Facebook page and has her fingers crossed the FAA will grant them permission.
“Because they’re hitting that two-year milestone, we’re coming into a lot of legal encounters – flying is one of them,” she said. “This is the first time we’ve had to deal with something like this.”
The FAA is making every effort to make sure the Sandoval girls can fly safely, said spokeswoman Alison Duquette. They are required to put every petition for exemption up for public viewing, but there isn’t a set number of comments or signatures that the family needs to gather to be able to travel.
Duquette believes this is the first time the agency has confronted a case of conjoined twins trying to fly as lap babies.
“We want to be transparent,” she said. “If we’re allowing an exception to the rule, we want the public to know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. ... We just want to make sure they’re protected as best as possible, and balancing that with them being able to make the journey.”
Aida and her husband, Arturo Sandoval, 52, have been married 27 years and have three older children – Emilio, 19, Esmeralda, 24 and Aniza, 26. The family has remained tight-knit, although Emilio went to Texas for training, Aniza is in Los Angeles for work and Esmeralda has a baby of her own in Sacramento, Aida said. It’s important to her that everyone be present at the graduation ceremony.
“Having a son in the service, for us it’s a big accomplishment,” she said. “I don’t want (the twins) to ever forget their brother. I want them to be in that moment with us. I just want us to be together.”
“If we can’t fly, we’ll drive. If it comes to that, we’re going to figure it out. It’s something that, as a parent, you do. You figure out how to get from point A to point B.”
The girls, who both have wavy brown hair and big smiles, weigh a combined 37 pounds, though rambunctious Eva appears to have more of the body mass than her quiet sister, Erika. They have separate heads and hearts and their own full sets of arms. They share some internal organs including their liver, and have three legs altogether. Only one twin can comfortably sit upright at a time, so Aida rotates them to give them turns.
Although their young lives have been wrought with fevers, bowel pains, urinary tract infections and other medical scares related to their shared anatomy, they’ve managed to see a lot of the world. A month after their first birthday, they flew to Dallas to see their brother in a different Army ceremony. In June they trekked to Disneyland to meet their favorite storybook characters, including Alice in Wonderland and Mickey Mouse.
The girls, who were lap babies on both occasions, handled those flights well, Arturo said.
“We sat at the back, they were giggling, or crying when the plane went up and down,” he said. “Some people stopped to say hi. Now they’re sillier, chattier. They’re absorbing everything, taking it in.”
On a typical day in Antelope, if they’re not busy with physical therapy or doctor’s appointments, Aida takes the twins out to the mall or the park. Earlier this summer, she pushed them around in a modified stroller at the California State Fair. While she used to be nervous about taking the twins out, she’s now happy to share the “Sandoval miracles” with others, she said.
“Now I want to tell the world all about it,” she said. “I’m so open about it. I get the girls all dressed up, I love it.”
Erika and Eva enjoy the spotlight. They’ve begun experimenting with words and phrases such as “read book,” “go outside” and “Winnie the Pooh.” They’ve also taken their first steps using a special walker for children with disabilities, and have an impressive memory for faces.
But every step they take together is a reminder of their upcoming separation, Aida said. Their surgical plans were supposed to be well underway this summer, but have been delayed due to a combination of the girls getting sick and their physicians at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford not having all the 3-D imaging necessary to map out the procedure.
The bigger the twins get, the more attached Aida fears they will become. Though she doesn’t know what their recovery from separation will look like, she’s excited to see them do certain things on their own, like use the bathroom and learn to walk.
“They’re recognizing that they’re together and the therapists are saying this separation will take a toll,” she said. “I don’t want this to affect them emotionally later on.”
In the interim, the entire Sandoval family is pitching in to help the girls continue to learn and grow. The journey to Texas, they hope, will be the next big adventure.
Aniza, a Sandoval sister, has been doing most of the talking with the FAA.
“I feel like I’m sister bear, fighting for them to have a normal life,” she said. “If we can do it for our girls, I’m sure there are plenty of other conjoined twins who want to fly and their parents might not know how to go about it. This will be able to help them fly without any issue.”