Going their own way
Monday, April 4, 2005
To the rest of the world, Jade and Erin Buckles are adorable survivors of a medical miracle – the successful surgical separation of twins born conjoined from chest to abdomen. Their middle names, Hope and Faith, are fitting symbols of their triumph over incredible odds. But to ’96 SCSU graduate Melissa (Ellens) Buckles and her husband Kevin, “they’re just our children.”
From the Buckles’ Washington, D.C., area townhome, Melissa talked about the emotional roller coaster her family has been on the past year, since the day the ultrasound technician looked up from the screen and soberly told them the image on the screen showed twins – conjoined twins.
“It was instant fear,” Melissa said of the news she and Kevin received Nov. 6, 2003, 18 weeks into the pregnancy, which was followed by a challenging birth and the rarest of rare procedures – separation surgery that allowed the girls to function on their own. “When I saw the girls separated for the first time it was absolutely a miracle,” Melissa said. “I never felt more blessed in my life.”
The complex procedure was largely successful, with both girls able to face the future functioning on their own. Erin’s future, however, is more uncertain than her sister’s. Lack of blood flow to a section of her spinal cord during the separation left her paralyzed from the chest down, Melissa said. “It was a total shock. Right after the surgery my husband and I noticed her legs weren’t moving like Jade’s were. We don’t want this to overshadow the miracle of the surgery, and we’re so thankful to Children’s Hospital, but this is something we’ll have to deal with, and Erin will have more to overcome.”
Dr. Gary Hartman, who led the surgical team at Children’s National Medical Center, hadn’t performed a separation in 10 years. After all, only one in 200,000 live births involve conjoined twins, so it’s a medical anomaly for any doctor. Fewer than one-fourth of separated twins who are born alive make it past the second day. Factoring in the complication that the umbilical cord Jade and Erin shared in the womb was wrapped around one of their necks, the fact that they celebrated their first birthday Feb. 26 strong and healthy is truly marvelous.
Featured on a one-hour ABC network “Prime Time” special and “Good Morning America” in January, a Discovery Health Channel special in February, a March Good Housekeeping article, and in several Washington Post newspaper stories, the family has been through trials even they can’t comprehend. “When I watched the “Prime Time” show, it was just amazing to see everything we’d been through,” Melissa said. “It’s hard for us to fathom they were once conjoined. Sometimes that seems like a lifetime ago.”
During the first four months before the separation, there were little problems for which they had to find their own solutions – creating ways to diaper, clothe and transport the twins. And there were agonizing moments. “My heart was bursting,” Melissa said of the rush of feelings when she first saw her newborn daughters. And there was the terrifying moment she handed them over to the surgical team for the separation surgery, a decision that was never a question for Melissa and Kevin, a couple who may have been as prepared as any for the string of highs and lows they’ve weathered.
As a student at SCSU, Melissa worked as a summer counselor with people with disabilities at Camp Courage. She was a nanny for a family with four little girls for a year after graduation, and she taught high school English and coached swimming in Arizona, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. She was a mother to a toddler and stepmother to an 11-year-old, Kevin Jr., who lives with them on weekends.
Kevin is a 16-year Marine, a gunnery sergeant whose job is assistant drum major with The Commandant’s Own U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, a position that involves traveling a month and a half every winter. Melissa’s parents, Dave and Joan Ellens of Cold Spring, both 1959 graduates of SCSU, flew out to Washington to help Melissa with the children during Kevin’s heavy February and March travel schedule.
The Ellens, whose last years at SCSU were spent as a star basketball player and a cheerleader, are proud of the way their youngest daughter Melissa has coped with the awesome responsibilities that have come her way in the past two years. “I’m telling you I was pretty panicky,” Dave said of the emergency trip to Washington when they got the news of the impending birth of conjoined twins.
“They’ve handled it all very calmly; they find out what they have to do to go on to the next step,” Dave said.
“Melissa and Kevin didn’t want to turn their circumstances into a circus,” said Joan of her daughter and son-in-law’s reticence to have national media attention turned on their family. “ABC had an exclusive, and they’ve been really good. (“Prime Time” host) Charles Gibson just adores these little girls, and the “Good Morning America” crew was playing with the kids during every break when they were on.”
“She’s a great mother,” Dave said of his daughter. “Her girls just adore her.” “The girls” include big sister Taylor, who also has taken the events that have surrounded the twins she refers to as “her babies” in stride, said Melissa. But the transition from conjoined to separated sisters was a bit confusing for a then-2-year-old to comprehend.
Taylor was at the hospital the day of the separation surgery, Melissa said. “To her having conjoined sisters was normal. When we took her first to Erin the next day, she was upset. She said ‘Where’s Jade?’ She was having a hard time putting it all together.” But now, nearly a year later, she’s the consummate big sister who loves to make her little sisters laugh.
For all the Buckles, the future has been greatly altered by the exceptional circumstances of the twins’ birth. The challenges of physical therapy sessions and high child care costs in the Washington, D.C., area will make it difficult for Melissa to return to the teaching she loved. Their medical bills are exorbitant, and until Kevin is eligible for retirement in four years, he’ll be away from home several weeks a year.
Still, their home is filled with the laughter and love of a family that has graciously emerged from a string of indescribable challenges, grateful for the medical procedures that gave Erin Faith and Jade Hope – whose hearts once literally beat as one – the freedom to grow and develop as individuals.