Matthew and Michael Yonkers are Eagle Scouts, martial arts black belts, certified Red Cross lifeguards and on their way to college in the fall.
But 18 years ago, the lives of the identical twin brothers from Sayville nearly came to a halt before they could begin.
On the day before Thanksgiving in 2002, Patricia Yonkers learned that the two fetuses growing in her womb had Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome — a rare and potentially fatal condition in which twins share a common placenta containing abnormal blood vessels that connect the umbilical cords and circulations of the twins.
Yonkers and her husband, Jeffrey, met with their West Islip doctor, who recommended terminating the pregnancy, warning the couple that the babies might not survive or could suffer serious heart issues.
"There's still anger. When I think about it now, I can feel my blood pressure going up," recalled Jeffrey Yonkers, 51, the chief financial officer of a pharmaceutical company. "We don’t look back often, but when I think about that day, I remember it was like a train hitting me. I will never forget it."
The couple never saw that doctor again and sought a second opinion.
A close friend of the family who was attending Stony Brook University's School of Medicine told his ethics professor about the couple's situation. That professor, Dr. David Garry, now Stony Brook's director of maternal-fetal medicine, offered to help.
Over the next several months, Patricia Yonkers would undergo five amniocentesis treatments in which a needle was used to drain a liter and a half of amniotic fluid from Baby A, who later became Matthew.
The babies were delivered naturally after 35 weeks, and outside of some minor differences in size between the pair — Matthew was born bigger, is now about 2 inches taller and weighs 20 pounds more than Michael — there is little physical evidence of the syndrome. The couple also has a third son, Christopher, 14.
"We were very fortunate that they didn’t have any issues," recalled Patricia Yonkers, 51, an accounting manager. "These were the cards we were dealt. Even though the cards may have felt like a bad hand, we pushed through the game."
The syndrome, which afflicts about 15% of identical twins, or about 4,500 cases nationally per year, can potentially be very dangerous, according to the Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome Foundation.
The common placenta is often shared unequally by the twins, and one twin might have a share too small to provide the necessary nutrients to grow normally or even to survive. Depending on the number, type and direction of the connecting vessels, blood can be transfused disproportionately from one twin to the other.
In the most severe cases, one or both twins might not survive, while 5% to 15% of babies have long-term-outcome problems, including developmental delays, motor problems or cerebral palsy, data shows.
Garry, who does not recall specifics of the couple's case, said the goal of repetitive amnio reduction is to give expectant parents healthy and happy babies.
"I am doing this as if this was my family member and I want the best outcome possible," said Garry, who was Stony Brook's director of ultrasound when he treated the couple.
The Yonkers twins are now seniors at Sayville High School. Last month they became Eagle Scouts on the same day, although Matthew, born four minutes earlier, received the honors first. The teens are working toward their second-degree black belt in Kempo jiujitsu and work part-time as lifeguards at the Sayville YMCA.
In the fall, Michael plans to attend SUNY Geneseo while Matthew has applied to the U.S. Naval Academy after receiving a nomination from former Rep. Peter King.
Looking back at his sons' achievements, Jeffrey Yonkers remains angered by the doctor who suggested terminating the pregnancy — and grateful that he ignored the recommendation.
"Look what they became," he said. "Look at the accomplishments they are doing."
Garry said he's grateful that he made a difference in the lives of the Yonkers family.
"As physician your goal is to make a difference in people's lives and I am happy I've been able to do that for this couple and these two kids," he said.
Patricia Yonkers said the syndrome remains a source of friendly sibling banter between her two boys, and how Michael should thank Matthew for providing him with the vital nutrients that allowed him to grow.
But more importantly, their mother said, the experience provided an opportunity to show her children the importance of perseverance and confronting challenges head-on.
"It’s the model we try to teach our children," she said. "You can’t go around something, so you just have to go through it."