Sunday, October 12, 2014

Conjoined twin - 14 years later

Gracie Attard, now aged 14
This is a longer post than what you are used to, But it's worth reading.
Back in the year 2000, a sensational story came out of Malta, specifically the small island of Gozo, where conjoined twins were born to Maltese parents. The story touched everybody in Malta, as well as England where the girls were born, named Gracie and Rosie. The story was reported very extensively in the British papers, especially when the decision was taken to separate the twins.
‘Mom and Dad used to take me to the cemetery where Rosie is buried and tell me: “She’s your sister, and you were twins.” Actually, they said we were joined together,’ she says. ‘Later I heard them use the word “conjoined”. I didn’t know what it meant, and when I was about seven I got my first dictionary and looked it up. A year or so later, I looked on the internet and found out that our story was a big one that went round the world. It all happened so long ago, when I was a tiny baby.’
Gracie is 14 now, and a livewire. Shrewd and funny, she loves to cycle and swim. She is determined to become a doctor. But for a few intensely stressful weeks after her birth in a Manchester hospital on August 8, 2000, her very existence was the subject of an ethical debate that gripped the world.

The funeral of Rosie, casket carried by her father.
Gracie was born a Siamese twin, joined to her sister Rosie, end to end, at the abdomen and spine. They shared an aorta, a bladder and circulatory systems. Their tiny legs were splayed at right angles from their shared trunk. Yet while Gracie was robust, Rosie was weak and ailing. In fact, Rosie was only alive because of Gracie. It was Gracie’s healthy heart that was pumping blood into her sibling. In effect, Gracie was her twin’s life support system.
What should be done? Doctors believed unless the girls were separated, within months both would die. Yet separating them would kill Rosie. So should her life be sacrificed to save Gracie?
For Michael and Rina Attard, the twins’ parents, the dilemma was heartbreaking. Both devout Catholics, they had never considered aborting the twins when scans revealed they were conjoined. They could not, therefore, bring themselves to allow one to die to save the other. So they resolved to leave their girls conjoined. ‘We decided it was better to put their future in God’s hands,’ says Rina. But they were over-ruled by the judiciary. Three Appeal Court judges decreed the twins should be separated. At this point the Attards decided to fight no further. Rosie duly died, three months, six hours after the complex 20-hour surgery to separate them, at St Mary’s Hospital on November 7, 2000. 

Little Gracie, aged 3, growing and smiling
Gracie, of course, lived. And although doctors were cautiously optimistic, her progress has surpassed all expectations. Her legs were broken and re-set in the correct position; her misaligned pelvis straightened. ‘She should walk and lead a relatively normal life,’ said one of her surgeons at the time. Gracie, however, has amazed everyone with how she’s coped.
Gracie has never spoken before. But now she’s talking exclusively to the British Mail at the home on the Maltese island of Gozo she shares with her parents and 12-year-old sister, also called Rosie in memory of her dead sister. ‘I don’t feel guilty that I lived and she died because what happened wasn’t my decision.” I haven’t cried, but there is sadness. Sometimes I want her to be with me. We were the same age. We’d probably think like each other.
‘Sometimes when I need someone to help me, say when I’m taking an exam, I’ll say in my head: “Help me, my little sister.” Because that’s what sisters do. They help each other, don’t they? And I’ve thought: “Would she look like me? Would we share the same interests?” ’ Her favorite subjects are chemistry and biology. She corresponds regularly by email with one of the surgeons, Adrian Bianchi — also Maltese and a Catholic — involved in the operation to separate her from her twin.

The best Christmas gift ever, Gracie with her parents
At 14, she believes she’s far too young to have a boyfriend — ‘I want to enjoy my life first!’ — but eventually she’d like to marry and have a brood of children. When I was five, I thought I’d like to have ten children,’ she says, ‘but I’ve revised that figure now. I don’t want that many because I’d be working day and night to provide for them.’
Michael, a plasterer, now 58, and Rina, 48, a full-time mom, traveled to England for the birth because their tiny Mediterranean island did not have the sophisticated medical facilities or expertise to cope. Rina recalls the awful fear that consumed her in the weeks before the birth. ‘I didn’t want the twins to be born because I knew something was terribly wrong. I just wanted them to stay inside me,’ she says. ‘They gave me a Caesarean and I asked to have a general anaesthetic because I wanted to be asleep. When I came round they were in the neonatal unit and to start with, I couldn’t look at them. It was two days before I saw them, and when I did I fainted. ‘Michael helped me up. He said: “Just start by touching their fingers.”
‘I went to look at them two hours after they were born,’ he says. ‘They were covered in a blanket. I didn’t see the extent of their problems. Then I went again, and again. After a while, you just start seeing them as two normal babies. You get used to how they are. I washed them every morning. I talked to them and Gracie seemed to respond.
‘I was so scared. It was all shocking, so overwhelming, and we were under so much pressure. So we thought it was better to leave it to God to decide what would happen.’ In the event, the High Court ruled that medical science should intervene. ‘And we accepted that decision,’ says Rina. ‘And, of course, now I look back and we’re grateful.’ They brought Rosie home for her funeral: the whole island, it seemed, turned out to mourn the baby who had died so her twin could live.

The Attard family, Michael, Gracie, Rosie and Rina
Meanwhile, little Gracie, in the care of doctors and nurses in Manchester, was prospering. Within days she started breathing without a ventilator; she drank voraciously from her bottle.
When she was ten months old, in June 2001, Rina and Michael took Gracie home. And so, after almost a year’s absence from their quiet island, during which they’d lived in a hospital in the cosmopolitan bustle of Manchester, the Attards returned to the three-storey house Michael had built in the remote hillside village of Xaghra.
The couple watched with quiet pride as their little girl grew; as she learned to talk, then, at 17 months, to walk; as her sense of mischief developed and a competitive streak emerged.
Her endless chattering earns a gentle teasing from younger sister Rosie, who was born in August 2002. ‘Oh Gracie stop it,’ says Rosie. ‘You talk too much.’ Firecracker Gracie, dark-haired and pale-skinned, is the image of Rina. Rosie takes after her Dad, both in looks — her hair is lighter than Gracie’s, her olive skin darker — and personality. ‘And when Rosie was born, I couldn’t open my eyes to look at her. But then Michael said: “Look! We’ve got a beautiful girl,” and the nurses put her on me. Then I opened my eyes and I saw her, and smiled.’

Gracie Attard, today
Michael, ever the indulgent father, looks at his girls with amusement. Rina is clearly proud. They sit in their house, which is tidy and plain, an image of Christ, a photo of the old Pope John Paul and another of Our Lady presiding over them. Their faith remains strong.

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