The Delicate Science of Conjoined Twins

The cause for conjoined twins remains a medical mystery.

ByABC News via logo
January 8, 2009, 1:06 AM

Sept. 17, 2007 — -- The science of conjoined twins has intrigued the world for hundreds of years. The exact causes of the phenomenon are still unknown. Sixty percent of conjoined twins are stillborn and 40 percent of the live births die within a few days.

When they survive, each twin deals with a unique and delicate physiology.

In addition, the discovery of conjoined twins can be overwhelming for parents.

Michelle and Jeff Roderick learned she was carrying thoracopagus, or twins joined at the chest, during her 1996 pregnancy.

"When I found out that the girls were going to be born conjoined, it was really a scary time," Michelle Roderick said.

Pediatric surgeon James Stein said the most severe form of thoracopagus twins is when the babies actually share a whole heart.

"Obviously there's no way for both twins to survive if you were to attempt separation," he said.

But for the Rodericks, MRI images showed their girls didn't share the vital organ, which was a relief to them.

Their daughters were relatively good candidates for separation surgery because they had two separate hearts.

Even before the conjoined twins were separated, they struggled.

"Shawna wasn't doing so good. She was slower to come around," Jeff Roderick said.

Michelle Roderick said Shawna was smaller than her sister and had trouble.

"Janelle, in this case, would get really mad," Michelle Roderick said. "She'd start just really throwing a fit. And when she cried so hard, she would actually push the surface blood off of her body and into Shawna's body. And Shawna wasn't crying, and all of a sudden she just would turn beet red, and Janelle looked really scary white."

The Rodericks and doctors felt the twins should be separated as soon as possible, at just 30 days old.

The girls were conjoined in three places: their breastbones, livers and diaphragms. While the bones and diaphragm are simple to separate, the shared liver presented the most difficult challenge.