After 27 hours of surgery, twin boys Anias and Jadon McDonald — born joined at the head 13 months ago — began a new life apart on Friday.
The round-the-clock operation at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx began Thursday morning and ended Friday. The separation procedure itself lasted 16 hours, followed by more hours of surgery to rebuild their skulls and make them whole.
Jadon was the first of the boys to be finished. He was wheeled out of the operating room around 7:40 a.m. on a stretcher, his perfectly shaped head wrapped in white gauze.
He was taken on an elevator to the pediatric intensive care unit on the 10th floor, where he was reunited with his parents, Nicole and Christian McDonald.
“My boy,” Christian said with tears in his eyes.
Nicole bent over in tears.
More than five hours later, around 1 p.m., surgeons finished operating on Anias, and he was taken to the 10th floor unit — where the family was finally reunited.
The surgery was led by Dr. James Goodrich, considered the leading expert on what’s known as craniopagus surgery.
It marked the seventh and longest separation surgery performed by Goodrich — and just the 59th craniopagus separation surgery in the world since 1952.
Nicole and Christian had to make an agonizing decision, opting for the procedure even though it carried major risks, including the possibility of death or long-term brain damage for one or both boys. But not to operate also carried risks: 80% of twins joined at the head die of medical complications by age 2 if not separated, studies show.
Goodrich informed the family of the separation around 3 a.m.
“Well, we did it,” Goodrich said.
On her Facebook page, Nicole wrote: “TWO SEPARATE BABIES!!!…and yet I ache with the uncertainty of the future. I didn’t cry until the surgeons left the room. I was barely able to even utter the words ‘thank you’ because of the pit that still sits heavy in my stomach. We are standing on the brink of a vast unknown. The next few months will be critical in terms of recovery and we will not know for sure how Anias and Jadon are recovering for many weeks.”
The moment capped an end to an agonizing wait for the boys’ parents.
The McDonalds and Montefiore hospital invited CNN to document this remarkable and rare journey of Jadon and Anias, allowing CNN exclusive access into the operating room throughout the procedure.
In a Facebook post, Nicole thanked each member of the medical team, who she calls the “real heroes,” for their extraordinary work.
She also explained why the family invited CNN to document the twins’ journey.
If you share anything that I post, please share this.
As my husband and I emerged from the depths of the hospital yesterday, we were faced with the reality that our private world had changed almost just as rapidly as the boys did overnight. For those of you who don’t know us, it might be interesting to note that we do not have TV or Internet access at home. We don’t get to watch the news on a regular basis and we have literally spent the last 36 hours at the boys’ bedside or waiting for updates from the doctors in the Caregiver Support Center at Montefiore. Using their computers, I was able to read the CNN articles. I watched the beautiful videos they put together and the live feeds on Facebook, but until just now, I had no idea that our story had been rippling out in every direction. As absolutely humbled as I am for all of the encouraging messages I’ve received, it’s hard for me to take any credit for the miracle that these boys are. All I did was birth beautiful, unique children and love them with all I have. There are mothers everywhere who do that on a daily basis. I’d like to direct the attention back to the true heroes of our story.
Anyone who knows us from the beginning knows that we did NOT want to go public. In fact, on my personal Facebook page, all of my pictures of the boys were individualized so that people wouldn’t focus on the bridge between their precious faces. When we agreed to CNN, it was solely because of Dr. Gupta and his ability to tell this story from the medical perspective. Our biggest desire was to show how brilliant the team at Montefiore has been and to give the hospital the credit it deserves. The real heroes of this story are the people who have put countless hours, days and months into the success of today.
Dr Goodrich was a God-send from the beginning. I’ll never forget the first time I talked to him. He called me back within a day after I left a desperate message with his secretary about our circumstance. It just so happened to be a holiday but he called me from his personal cell phone and he spent over an hour going through all of the details from the previous surgeries he had done. I knew he was the one from the beginning and I’ve never regretted it since. He has been such a gift in our life. I think of him like more of a mysterious family member than our neurosurgeon. He’s always cool, calm and collected. He always has the right answer. He has fought for my children and our medical decisions on more than one occasion. I’d like to think it’s just because it’s us, but I know he’s like this with everyone. I was talking to the cafeteria ladies downstairs one day and they were asking who was doing the surgery. When I said Goodrich they all lit up and said, “He knows us all by name. We love him!” That’s him…so down to earth…but so BRILLIANT. I truly believe that not only is he the most interesting man I’ve ever met, but he’s also the most giving and humble too. I could go on and on about all of the times he saved us from despair along this journey…but I’ll let him stay a bit mysterious. And of course, it’s because of this great man my babies are in their own beds today.
Dr Goodrich’s nurse practitioner, Kamilah, has also been an nothing short of extraordinary. This is my go-to woman. When we were trying to move here, she was sending me listings of home rentals in good areas by the hospital. In her spare time (ha) she literally coordinates most of the details of our life. From how we get the boys into the hospital for an appointment to getting Aza an antibiotic today when we found a big, festering spider bite on his arm. If Anias sneezes, I call Kamilah. She answers all of my calls, even at midnight when I freak out about having to flush a PICC line for the first time. I probably say, “I’ll just call Kamilah” 5 times a day. She’s beautiful and caring and kind. My favorite thing she does is make Dr Goodrich take selfies everywhere he goes. They are the perfect odd couple. I truly love them both.
The Goodrich/Kamilah team of the plastic surgery world are Dr Tepper and Martine. These two have talked me down from many fits of anxiety over the last month as the surgery date approached. Dr Tepper has had the tireless job of filling the tissue expanders and meticulously planning the reconstruction of the boys’ heads. With each tissue expander appointment, the boys would scream in pain but both he and Martine would console them and gave me so much reassurance that it would all be ok. Dr Tepper went to Isreal this summer. He brought back two official soccer outfits for the boys from the holy land. Martine has a voice that takes me from level 10 to level 2. The patience and kindness they show our family and anyone who steps into the office is profound.
And what about Dr Kahana and Dr Mann…the anesthesiologists that are in charge of keeping the boys stable during all procedures. It was Dr Kahana who sat through all 30 hours of surgery on Thursday/Friday making sure my sweet Anias came out safe and sound and stable. These two are true unsung heroes. It’s because of their commitment to my boys that Anias does not have a tracheotomy. I’ll never forget when Anias went into heart failure in the middle of the night after his last surgery. Dr Mann and Dr Kahana came racing in at midnight to re-intubate the boys. It was Dr Kahana who recognized the heart failure after intubation. She used a small ultrasound probe normally used to find veins to look at his heart and then alerted cardiology of the issue. Have I mentioned that I love these people…because I do.
And then there’s Jack, the neuroradiologist, who intricately went through every single image of the boys and worked side by side with Dr Goodrich to plan every cut. He knows my boys even more intimately than I do! He encouraged me on MRI/CT day when they were attempting to place an IV in Anias’ neck for contrast. I was sobbing as the boys screamed and there he and Kamilah were in the midst of all those people patting me on the shoulder and making sure I was ok.
And what about the PICU staff…from the attending doctors to the janitors…these people are the ones who dealt with us on a daily basis, and always with a smile. Montefiore really is something special. The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore offers breakfast, lunch and dinner to the parents of children who are admitted. They have a laundry facility you can use for free if you can bear to break away from your sick child. The child life staff is so incredibly kind, bringing toys and reading books to the babies. The president and vice president of the hospital even frequented our room and legitimately fell in love with the boys. This is not a hospital; it’s a community. Everyone knows each other by first name. It is the best second home we’ve ever had. The care giver support center in the heart of the hospital was my sanctuary. Randi Kaplan is the woman who took me under her wing from day one. In recent months, it was not uncommon for her to come up around bedtime and help me get the babies to sleep. I’ve never met someone more warm and caring. Her heart is pure. She exemplifies what this hospital is all about…love.
Now to get really personal…
All of you who have selflessly donated to our family. There is NO WAY we could have done this without you. You allowed us to direct all of our attention to these beautiful boys in the way that they deserve. Each and every one of you is a hero in your own way.
Our family…the people who have flown here at the drop of a hat to help in our deepest trials, who have taken Aza day after day while Christian worked and I was going to the NICU daily in Chicago. The people who literally lift us up and carry us when we feel like we just can’t take another step. We are so blessed to have so much support in our corner.
My husband. Let me fight back tears on this one. All this CNN stuff seems to be showcasing me for some reason. Maybe because I cry a lot so it’s good entertainment. But let me tell you, my husband has been here every step of the way, loving these babies with a passion that I admire. He gave up so many dreams, so many goals to move here with me and become a stay at home dad. He takes care of our three year old and all of the processes that need to occur for these boys to be in the hospital. He makes me laugh when I’m crying. He picks me up off the floor when I just can’t seem to go on. And his eyes…the way he looks at all of our boys…it’s so touching. His heart is enormous. Marriage through a trial like this is not easy. But everyday he still wakes up and chooses to love me…and that’s saying something. He has a faith in God that I strive to achieve. He’s so incredibly giving and thoughtful. I love him with all I have and then some. There is no one else I would want to go on this journey with.
Aza. My precious little boy. He just rolls with the punches. At the age of 3, he has moved 4 times. He went from having mommy every day to really only seeing me at night time. His heart is just like his daddy’s…full of love. He LOVES his babies and has never once noticed their connection. He just lays his head on them like I do to hug them, hands them their toys, and gives them their pacifiers. This child introduced me to motherhood in such a profound way. There are so many times I would come home from the hospital, totally exhausted, and he says “mommy hold you” because he wants me to snuggle him. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s holding me. I’m honored to be his mother and cannot wait for the day that he can play with his brothers.
I saved the biggest hero for last…last but most assuredly not least…and that’s God. I say this with caution because I know that there are many people out there who don’t believe in God. I used to be one of you. This is where I would stop reading and move on with my day. But if I don’t acknowledge Him who has carried us on every step of this journey I would be doing a huge disservice to myself, and to you. This is by no means a ploy to take away from the brilliance of all the doctors listed above. Their skills and knowledge saved my children from a dire fate. But imagine being lost in a cave in complete darkness. Even with the most incredible map and outdoorsman, you wouldn’t find your way out without the light. Now the torch doesn’t get a medal of honor. The flashlight doesn’t get recognition, but without the light those people would still be lost in the cave. God has guided every single step of this process, bringing together the perfect group of people to make a miracle happen. On the day I went into labor, I was whisked up to RUSH in a whirlwind. When I got there, the expert team that was stitched together from various parts of the hospital with the sole purpose of delivering the boys had just finished a simulation of the delivery. The NICU room had just been reconfigured on that day to house 2 babies. They couldn’t believe it when I came in. I was 32 weeks pregnant and typically they would have given me steroids to prolong delivery, but having all the people available in this way would not happen again. So, they delivered the boys right then. On 9/9 at 11:11. Coincidence or God? You decide but I know. I know because that’s not the only time where the impossible happened. In fact, there’s dozens of times. Without God we would have unraveled many many months ago. People say we have handled this situation with grace…but it’s with God’s grace that we continue on. By allowing Him to take control, by giving our anxieties to Him, we have been able to carry the “burden” and count it a blessing. I know life before God…I fell apart for infinitely smaller issues. There’s no way we would have made it without Him. Our ministers were always on call to give us advice or to lift our spirits and recenter us on what’s really important. The brethren of the Living Church of God and believers all over the world have lifted our family up in prayer and been pillars of strength from day one.
These are the real heroes.