By now most people have seen pictures of conjoined twins. The shock factor has disappeared even if the audacity of the sight of two people being physically linked together is still present.
No matter how we react when we see two different heads and pairs of arms and legs joined together, we will never understand how it feels to be the mother of these babies. Unable to hold her children or to help them must be heartbreaking for a mother, but even that pales in comparison to being outside the operating room waiting for news about the dangerous operation to separate them.
On Oct. 14, 2016, conjoined twins Jadon and Anias McDonald were successfully separated from one another. They were 13 months old at the time and were connected by the tops of their heads.
On Dec. 20, 2016, a mere two months since their 27-hour surgery, the two boys were released from the hospital. It was a celebratory event as nurses, doctors, and other hospital staff lined the hall to cheer on the family of five and say their goodbyes.
The two boys’ story was not always so full of smiles and happiness, however. Ever since they were born, the boys had experienced multiple scary moments where their survival was in question.
Perhaps the scariest moment of all came early on in the 27-hour surgery. Dr. James Goodrich, the pediatric neurosurgeon leading the team, soon discovered the boys’ brains were fused together more than they realized, making the operation even more delicate and potentially deadly.
They had anticipated less than four centimeters of brain to be fused, but during the procedure they found over five centimeters of fusion. Dr. Goodrich said, “For a child that size, that’s a good chunk of tissue, but we had to separate them, and so to do that, it was a matter of just picking a plane between the two.”
In order to choose the right place to cut, they needed to be sure there were no large blood vessels in the way. Furthermore, the vessels there are extremely fragile and if one is cut just a tiny bit, there is no way of controlling the bleeding and it becomes a slippery slope that could end with losing one of the babies.
Although still very confident both children would be separated safely, Dr. Goodrich admits he was worried about losing one of the boys. “I was at a point that I was wondering whether we were going to lose both kids if one of [the veins] broke,” Dr. Goodrich said. “Then again, after discussion with various members of the team, we picked an avenue that was safe and it worked.”
After the brains were separated successfully, Dr. Oren Tepper, lead plastic surgeon, was able to make the final cut before separating the two boys for good. He recalls it as being a very emotional moment: “For me, I think the big emotional change was when they were actually separated. I hadn’t seen twins be separated before… and for me, that final moment when we were able to take those two beds and separate them apart was like nothing else I’ve ever seen.”
Though the surgery was a success, the fight was only just beginning for Jadon and Anias. Over the course of the next two months, they would acquire bacterial infections requiring further surgeries as well as several other skin graft procedures.
Jadon is almost fully recovered. He is able to move his arms and legs, roll over in bed, and reach for his toys. Anias, however, has a much greater uphill climb.
The bone grafts which covered his brain needed to be removed, so now all he has is a layer of skin covering his brain, forcing him to wear a helmet until he is able to receive reconstructive surgery when he is older. Additionally, he has been suffering from seizures—but being able to move his arms and legs has been a major positive in his recovery.
Weeks later, the two boys paraded through the halls of Montefiore on their way out and to the next step in their recovery: Blythedale Children’s Hospital, where they would continue their physical and occupational therapy. It is only fitting that they rode out together in the same wagon that they rode in on when they were connected.
On leaving their home for the last two months, the boys’ father, Christian, said, “It’s almost surreal. I can’t believe this is finally happening. It’s such a big step in the right direction.”
About their departure to the rehabilitation center, Dr. Goodrich said, “Am I happy to see them go? No. But it’s time to move on. It’s time for the next stage.”
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