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​Conjoined twins' delicate separation

Dr. Jon LaPook reports on an international effort to separate a pair of conjoined twin girls in Haiti
Haitian conjoined twins get help from a native son 06:39

Dr. Jon LaPook watched the historic surgical separation of conjoined twins in Haiti:

There's something especially poignant about twins holding hands. But six-month-old Marian and Michelle Bernard aren't just any twins. They were born in Haiti, joined at the abdomen.

They were just minutes away from one of medicine's rarest and riskiest operations -- to separate them.

Improbably, the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people in Haiti has also helped bring Michelle and Marian a shot at a normal life.

Because that earthquake also brought back the Haitian-born surgeon who would be leading the operation, Dr. Henri Ford.

Ford was a teenager, two weeks shy of his 14th birthday, when his family moved from their Port-au-Prince neighborhood to Brooklyn, New York in 1972. He became an Ivy League-trained pediatric surgeon, now chief of surgery at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

He'd gone back to Haiti two or three times -- and then, on January 12, 2010, the earthquake hit, and shook Ford's world 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles.

"I arrived the second day that the airport opened, and pretty much went to work and spent two absolutely grueling weeks, the toughest ones of my life," he said. "When it came time to leave, I recognized that I couldn't just say, 'Yes, I did my share and it's over.' It wasn't a 'one and done' thing."

Ford has returned more than 20 times since to provide medical care. So in November, when Michelle and Marian were born, their doctors knew who to turn to for help.

"It was a challenge, but by nature, surgeons love challenges," he said.

Six-month-old conjoined twins Marian and Michelle Bernard. CBS News

Ford decided to attempt the first ever separation of conjoined twins in Haiti.

The girls' parents, Manousheka and David, are no strangers to beating the odds. After the earthquake, David was badly injured and buried under rubble for seven days before being rescued. After that, just having any children was a kind of miracle -- and then it was triplets: a healthy girl, Tamar, and her two sisters.

"Even though they are stuck together , they each have a different personality," said Manousheka. "Marian is always happy, always playing, always gay, especially when she sees people. However, Michelle is more introverted."

"Did you ever consider not separating the twins?" LaPook asked.

"Yes, there was a moment the thought crossed my mind," said David. "But then Manoushka said, 'No, if we truly love them. we need to give them that chance, to separate them so they can live a full life."

The operation would require sophisticated medical care in a country where it is severely lacking. Three months after the earthquake, LaPook visited a clinic that had just one oxygen tank. It was taken away from a premature baby to help save a woman and her unborn child. They survived; the premature baby did not.

Spurred on by the earthquake, the Haitian government teamed up with the group Partners in Health, which helps bring modern medical care to those in need. And in 2013, their efforts led to the opening of a teaching hospital in nearby Mirebalais, central Haiti. Partners in Health believes Haitians themselves must take a key role in helping their country.

Dr. Ford was the perfect bridge. He put together a team of more than two dozen volunteer health professionals from the United States. They trained for months with Haitians for the procedure they were about to attempt.

To avoid confusion, everyone is color-coded: red for Marian's team, yellow for Michelle's.

A line is drawn to show the surgeons where to cut.

Things go smoothly until Michelle's blood pressure suddenly and dangerously drops. She is given a transfusion and IV fluids, but because the twins still share a liver, those fluids go from Michelle's blood stream into Marian's.

Seconds count.

"We now have two babies, two independent living organisms," said Dr. Ford. Amid the celebration, he announced, "There is no satisfactory substitute for excellence!"

Nearly seven hours after Marian and Michelle Bernard enter the operating room together, they leave in separate cribs. Their parents are overwhelmed.

"It's extraordinary to see them lying on their backs," said Manousheka.

By the next morning, Manousheka is experiencing motherhood in a brand new way.

Dr. LaPook asked Dr. Ford, "What does it mean to you to come back here, having been born here, to do an operation like this?"

"It's extremely gratifying," he replied. "There is something special about coming to Haiti to operate on Haitian children with Haitian physicians, because I feel that I'm contributing to the future of this country."

Just this Friday, just two weeks after the operation, the healthy girls are discharged from the hospital -- a homecoming made possible by a native son coming home.

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