Dominican Conjoined Twins Separated Successfully

Conjoined twins who became a celebrity in their hometown in the Dominican Republic were separated after a lengthy and complicated surgery to separate them.

Maria and Teresa Tapia, 19-month-old twins, were born joined at the lower chest and abdomen, sharing a liver, pancreas and portion of the small intestine. They were recovering Tuesday from a daylong surgical procedure at a Virginia hospital.

A team led by Dr. David Lanning, surgeon-in-chief at Children's Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, completed a 20-hour surgery on Maria and an 18.5-hour surgery on Teresa.

Lanning said Tuesday the toddlers were in the pediatric intensive care unit and were in stable condition.

They fight like siblings who aren't conjoined fight. But imagine if you have nowhere to go.

- Lisandra Sanatis, their mother

In several complicated procedures involving six surgeons, the medical team divided the liver, pancreas and other shared organs and reconstructed the girls' abdominal walls.

The 19-month-old twins and their family have become celebrities in the Dominican Republic. The country's first lady flew to Richmond to support them. The girls and their 24-year-old mother, Lisandra Sanatis, arrived in Richmond about two months ago to prepare for the lengthy, intricate surgery.

VCU's first attempt at separating conjoined twins also gave an opportunity for VCU students to use their talents to help the family in unexpected ways.

"It's more than just an operation," said pediatric plastic surgeon Jennifer Rhodes, part of the medical team operating on the twins and who helped coordinate some of the projects. "To get patients from start to finish you need to get involved and care for them in a holistic fashion."

Students from the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising created new outfits for the toddlers; an occupational therapist modified a car seat so they could go on outings, and a sculpture student created foam models of the twins' bodies on which Rhodes could practice on synthetic skin before doing the surgery.

The World Pediatric Project, a nonprofit surgical-care provider for children in Central America and the Caribbean, sponsored the twins' medical care, along with the family's stay in the United States. Lanning has been a surgical volunteer with the group for several years.

Sanatis said she has always dreamed of seeing her 19-month-old daughters as separate and independent children. Teresa is more tranquil and Maria is more forceful and tough, she said.

"It may be a little strange at first, but it really is what I wanted," Sanatis said through an interpreter in an interview a week before the surgery. "I'm so happy to be able to see them be the individuals they were born to be."

Complicating matters was the fact that about nearly 88 percent of the liver's blood flow was routed to Teresa, leaving Maria smaller and thinner and Teresa taller and chubbier because Teresa received a much higher portion of the nutrients they took in, Lanning said.

Lanning said he had "extensive conversations" about the Tapia case with Dr. Gary Hartman, the pediatric surgeon who led a team at Stanford University that separated twin girls joined at the chest and abdomen last week.

Sanatis said that after the separation, her daughters will be glad to be able to get away from each other during arguments, she said.

"They fight like siblings who aren't conjoined fight," she said. "But imagine if you have nowhere to go."

The girls are expected to remain in the hospital for about two weeks and stay in Richmond at least another month so they can undergo physical and occupational therapy, along with follow-up visits with doctors. They could return home by the end of the year to reunite with the twins' father, a construction worker, and three other siblings.

About a half-dozen separation surgeries are done in the U.S. annually, Lanning said, and maybe double that number worldwide.

Worldwide, conjoined twins account for between 1 in 50,000 and 1 in 100,000 live births. The condition is three times more likely to occur among females than males. A third of conjoined twins are attached at the lower chest, as in the case of the Tapia twins.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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