Imagine, if you can, this moment: you find out you’re pregnant. You’re already the parent to one adorable child, one you know is going to be the best big brother. Then you find out that you’re having twins, and while that’s a little overwhelming, it’s also really exciting. But then you discover the twins are conjoined— and EVERYTHING changes.
That’s the incredibly challenging scenario in which Nicole and Christian McDonald found themselves last year. Twins Jadon and Anias were born via C-section on September 9, 2015. Not only were the two conjoined – a rare occurrence that only happens once in every 200,000 births – but they were joined in an especially rare and dangerous place: the tops of their heads.
Jadon and Anias were what is known as “craniopagus twins.” CNN explains that:
Twins joined at the head, called craniopagus twins, are exceedingly rare, occurring in one out of every 2.5 million births. About 40% of the twins are stillborn, and another third die within 24 hours of their birth. Studies have showed that 80% of twins joined at the head die of medical complications by the age of 2 if not separated.
So the odds were stacked against these two babies from the start— yet they persevered. Nicole, a former pediatric physical therapist, and Christian, a truck driver, couldn’t put them in a regular crib, dress them in anything besides onesies, take them for walks or even hold them, but together with the support of three-year-old brother Aza, the rest of their family, and their faith, the parents got the twins through the first year of their life. Then they were faced with another impossible-odds decision: to separate or not to separate.
The decision, of course, was not an easy one for the family. Surgeries separating conjoined twins are always high risk, and when those twins are craniopagus, it requires the separation not only of shared skull and tissue, but – in the case of Jadon and Anias – approximately 2 inches in diameter of shared brain tissue. While there have only been 58 craniopagus separation surgeries worldwide since 1958, and while there have been twins joined this way who go on to live full, rich and long lives without separating, the McDonalds knew they wanted full individual lives for their boys.
“I can’t wait to see them as two separate little boys,” [Christian] says [to CNN]. “That’s what excites me the most. I really just want to know my boys.” [. . .] Standing in the boys’ bedroom, the parents agree that despite their worries, surgery is in the boys’ best interests. There have been other craniopagus twins, similar to the McDonalds, who have grown old joined together, learned to walk and even get married. It is by all accounts a challenging life. Not the life Nicole and Christian want for their boys.
“We’re so excited,” says Nicole.
“These boys, they’re raring to go,” Christian says. “They can’t stay like this any longer.”
Glancing over at the twins, the mother tells them, “In just a couple weeks, when you cry, I’ll get to hold you.”
The boys squeal.
The McDonalds were able to take comfort in their incredible surgical team, led by the leading craniopagus separation surgeon in the world, Dr. James Goodrich. Before treating Jadon and Anias, Goodrich had performed seven of the risky and complicated surgeries, and consulted on 13 more, all around the world, most recently on Syrian twins in Saudi Arabia. Preparation for separating the McDonald twins happened periodically nearly from the moment of their birth, with Goodrich operating three times to insert tissue expanders, and performing advanced brain and head imaging to plan the surgery out in exact detail ahead of time.
All of that preparation culminated at 9:45 a.m. on October 14, 2016, when the 27 hour surgery began. It took 16 hours to separate the twins, then more hours to rebuild and reform their skulls. After all of that – the months of struggle, the hours of waiting and stressing – how did the McDonald clan fare?
Well, see for yourself.
As Nicole celebrated on her Facebook page, “TWO SEPARATE BABIES!” While recovery will be long and difficult, there is no doubt that this successful surgery is an incredible, modern miracle.
Goodrich refers to the twins’ day of separation as their “re-birthday,” and it’s easy to see why. While it makes sense on a practical level – Jadon and Anias will experience what is essentially a second infancy as they learn to roll over, sit up, crawl and walk in their separate bodies – it also makes sense on a spiritual and emotional level. The whole McDonald family has received a brand new shot at life. And what’s more miraculous than that?
To learn more about the McDonald family, check out the extensive coverage of their lives pre-surgery and the surgery itself over on CNN. Nicole also shares news and updates on the boys’ recovery on her Facebook page.