The mother of conjoined twins who were successfully separated at 14 months has revealed her daughters are ‘resilient’ six months on from the life-changing operation.
Sarabeth and Amelia Irwin of Petersburg, Michigan, were born ‘hugging each other’ and were connected from their chests to their belly buttons. Each had their own arms and legs and heart, but their livers were connected.
In August 2020, the twins underwent an 11-hour surgery at at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and were successfully separated.
They are now living independent lives at home with mother Alyson, 33, father Phil, 32, and their four-year-old sister Kennedy.
The mother of conjoined twins who were successfully separated at 14 months has revealed her daughters are ‘resilient’ six months on from the life-changing operation. Pictured, Sarabeth and Amelia in hospital after undergoing the operation to separate them in August 2020
Sarabeth and Amelia Irwin of Petersburg, Michigan, were born ‘hugging each other’ and were connected from their chests to their belly buttons. Each had their own arms and legs and heart, but their livers were connected
They are now living independent lives at home with mother Alyson, 33, father Phil, 32, and their four-year-old sister Kennedy. Pictured, the family before the girls’ operation last year
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Alyson recalled the first time she was able to hold her daughters after the procedure, which involved more than 24 medical staff.
‘Seeing them in two beds, the farthest away they’d ever been from each other, was amazing,’ she said. ‘Looking at their little bellies had me in tears.
‘Cradling them was the thing I’d been waiting for and it was incredible.’
She explained there had been concerns over how the girls would develop being apart, but they were short-lived.
Alyson continued: ‘Sarabeth was rolling on her stomach in the cot and it was the happiest we’d seen her. We’d been worried about the psychological impact of being apart, but they were both saying – look how resilient we are!’
Alyson and Phil had learned about the conjoined twins at their 20-week scan in 2019.
The twins were born prematurely and shared a liver before being separated. Pictured, in hospital before their operation
Pediatric heart surgeon Dr. Richard Ohye (right) speaks with Alyson (center) and Phil (left) Irwin as twins twins Sarabeth and Amelia Irwin await their surgery on August 5 2020
Until that point, Alyson had been convinced she was having a ‘big old boy’ because the pregnancy had felt different to the one she had with Kennedy.
It came as a shock when the ultrasound revealed conjoined twins.
‘It kind of felt like the worst news you could receive, you know?’ Alyson previously told the Detroit Free Press. ‘Especially because the statistics are not good.’
The 11-hour procedure to separate the twins
Before the operation 3D printed models of the girls’ bodies were made so doctors could plan for every step of the surgery.
Plastic surgeons, who had placed tissue expanders in the twins to provide them with extra skin, made the initial incision while cardiac surgeons separated the chest structures and pediatric surgeons divided the merged liver.
After separation, the girls were repositioned at opposite ends of the same operating room table while the surgeons divided into two groups working in concert to reconstruct the chest and abdomen and make separate belly buttons.
Every detail was carefully planned – down to color-coding in the OR to identify which team was in charge of which patient after separation. Amelia’s pink painted fingernails matched the surgical hats for her team while Sarabeth’s were yellow.
Source: Michigan Health Blog
She added that her prenatal team had ‘had never seen anything like that before. So they said their hearts were breaking for us … but there wasn’t anything they could do.’
The Irwins were then referred to a high-risk obstetrician, which led to their meeting with Michigan Medicine’s Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment Center director Dr Marcie Treadwell, and the news that the twins had their own sets of arms and legs, but were conjoined at the chest and abdomen.
Prenatal imaging indicated that the girls had all separate organs, but shared a liver.
Mott’s Mychaliska said that he told the Irwin’s separating the twins would involve a lot of of planning and evaluation.
Although he said he ‘didn’t want to be too optimistic because this was (going to be) a really long journey for us,’ he recalled ‘being very hopeful with the family, that it’s something that certainly was possible.’
To explain what the twins would look like to big sister Kennedy, doctors gave the toddler two dolls that had been sewn together in the middle, the way the twins were conjoined.
As a result, Kennedy ‘understood it before we had them, and then it was never a big deal to her at all,’ Alyson said.
Doctors saw that the babies were showing signs of distress at 34 weeks, due to a blood flow abnormality in the umbilical cord they shared, which lead to the need to perform a c-section before the planned 35 and 36 weeks gestation period.
On June 11, 2019, when doctors lifted the twins out of Alyson’s womb, the two girls – each weighing 4.5lbs – had their arms wrapped around each other.
The Irwins knew the girls might not survive long enough for surgery, but they did.
‘I remember them briefly putting the girls on my chest. It was very sweet and special being able to hold them and see them for the first time,’ Alyson told the newspaper.
The surgery to divide the twins had been planned for February, but the girls developed pneumonia and then the coronavirus pandemic followed.
The surgery was canceled and the twins were sent home to isolate following their recovery on March 17, shortly before Michigan’s quarantine order came down.
The surgery (pictured) took nearly 11 hours to complete and involved giving the girls artificial sternums, Gore-Tex patches for their pericardiums and creating new belly buttons
The surgery was rescheduled for August 5, giving the twins time to continue using tissue expanders which would help create enough skin to cover the areas where they would be separated.
The surgery started at 11.19am and, by 1.11pm, the twins were separated and moved to opposite ends of the operating room table so that the surgeons could start to reconstruct their chests and abdomens.
More than two dozen doctors, nurses and specialists were involved in the procedures.
Among the things that had to be created for the girls were artificial sternums – they had shared one – made of titanium bars and Gore-Tex patches to replace holes in their pericardium, which they’d also shared. They also each got a belly buttons crafted for them.
Alyson and Phil weren’t allowed into the hospital due to coronavirus restrictions and spent the nearly 11-hour surgery time waiting in their car outside the building.
Sarabeth came home in late August, followed by Amelia on September 5.
Although the girls may require future surgeries as their bodies develop and currently require physical and occupational therapy, doctors are optimistic that they’ll grow up like children who hadn’t been born the way they had.
Alyson added: ‘We look forward to a wonderful life for them. But will never forget the journey that got us here.’