More than just a surgery: Conjoined twins separated in Haiti

In May, conjoined twins were separated in Haiti in the first operation of its kind in the country. CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook witnessed the successful operation and filed this report.

MIREBALAIS, Haiti -- There's nothing unusual about twins holding hands. But 6-month-old infants Marian and Michelle Bernard share much more: They were born joined at the abdomen.

When we saw them, they were minutes away from one of medicine's rarest and riskiest operations. Improbably, the 2010 earthquake that brought so much death and destruction to Haitialso helped bring Michelle and Marian a shot at a normal life.

Conjoined twins Marian and Michelle Bernard before their operation CBS News

Their future was in the hands of Dr. Henri Ford. Born in Haiti, he and his family left a Port-au-Prince neighborhood in 1972. He became an ivy-league-trained pediatric surgeon, now Chief of Surgery at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. He rarely returned to his home country, but that changed when the earthquake struck.

"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," said Ford. "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."

When Michelle and Marian were born, their doctors asked Dr. Ford if this risky operation could be done in Haiti for the very first time. The procedure would require sophisticated medical care in a country where millions still lack even basic health care.

David and Manoucheca, look at their baby girls ahead of the operation to separate them CBS News

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

The twins' parents, Manoucheca and David, are no strangers to beating the odds. After the earthquake, David was buried under rubble for seven days before being rescued.

Because of the earthquake, the Haitian government and the nonprofit group Partners in Health joined forces to open a modern teaching hospital in Mirebalais in 2013.

Ford 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 would attempt today.

Dr. Henri Ford, middle, leads a prayer with doctors ahead of the surgery CBS News

To avoid confusion, everyone in the room was color-coded: red for Marian's team, yellow for Michelle's. A line was drawn to show the surgeons where to cut.

Things went smoothly until Michelle's blood pressure suddenly dropped. She was given a transfusion and IV fluids, but because the twins still shared a liver, those fluids went from Michelle's blood stream into Marian's. The remedy was to complete the separation, and to do it quickly.

Nearly seven hours after Marian and Michelle Bernard entered the operating room together, they left in separate cribs. Their parents were overwhelmed.

Dr. Henri Ford with the twins following the successful operation CBS News

"I'm very happy, very happy," said David, the twins' father.

As for Dr. Ford, he said the operation was extremely gratifying.

"There is something special about coming to Haiti to operate on Haitian children with Haitian physicians, Haitian anesthesiologists, because I feel that I'm contributing to the future of this country," said Dr. Ford.

The healthy girls are set to be discharged from the hospital any day now -- their homecoming made possible by a native son coming home.

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook