Separated by surgery, twin girls stay close

Teens: Baltimore girls shine in school, making allowances for scars their guardian calls a blessing.

May 18, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Tiera and Ciera Bennett were born face to face 16 years ago, their hearts sharing blood and their arms wrapped around each other's necks, like they were hugging.

Surgeons had to separate the Baltimore twins using a pioneering and risky surgical procedure. It was a first for the University of Maryland Medical Center, and the hospital's doctors used lessons from the 1986 operation to prepare for the similar separation April 19 on a pair of African twins, Loice and Christine Onziga, who were also joined from neck to navel.

It's amazing that either set of twins survived, doctors say. A half-century ago, nearly all conjoined twins died. Even today, the survival rate ranges between 5 percent and 25 percent.

The Bennett girls not only lived, but thrived. Dr. J. Laurence Hill, who separated the Bennetts in 1986 and helped plan the operation last month, says he will consider his work with the African infants a stunning success if they grow up as healthy and normal as the Bennett girls.

But a normal life hasn't been easy for the Bennetts. They've had to lean on each other through a series of hardships - including partial deafness, a family struggling with poverty, and separation from both parents. Their father is in prison for murder, their mother unable to care for them.

Despite the difficulties, the twins are straight-A students, tied for first in their class at Carver Vocational Technical High School.

Surgeons had to knife through bone, cartilage, liver, muscle and an artery connecting their hearts to separate the girls. But no scalpel could cut through their deeper, invisible bonds.

This is life for a pair of best friends born in one body:

It's 7 a.m., and golden light is angling over the roof of their grandmother's brick rowhouse on Linwood Avenue in East Baltimore. The girls run out the door, their long braids flying.

Although they're identical in appearance, they dress differently. Tiera has red hair extensions woven into her locks. Ciera is wearing a black Calvin Klein shirt and leather backpack.

They tumble into a cab, which speeds off to Carver Vo-Tech on the west side. They attend this public high school, although it's on the opposite side of the city, because it has a program for kids with hearing impairments.

Arriving at school a half-hour early, they head to the cafeteria. Their friends cluster around a newspaper that has photos of the African twins.

"When I saw them on TV last night, I felt like it was me and my sister," says Ciera. "We've found there are advantages to being twins. We help each other, always sit by each other. People always see us together - but they may not know we're different in our hearts."

Tiera says: "We always dress different, because we want to be different. We fight, too, sometimes. But only over little things."

The bell rings, and the twins set off shoulder-to-shoulder through the raucous hallways.

In computer class, Ciera taps in rows of numbers without watching her fingers during a keyboard exercise. Other students peek at their fingers, but she turns in her paper first.

In art class, Tiera hunches over a graffiti-scarred desk, her eyes inches above the paper, as she practices calligraphy.

Setting her pen aside, she slides out a large Mother's Day card on which she painted a pair of teddy bears. Mother's Day passed three days earlier without her having a chance to give it to her mom. She and her sister moved in with their grandmother a year ago because their mother's home wasn't stable.

"I don't see my mother much," says Tiera. "I miss her. She lives around here somewhere, I guess."

After lunch of macaroni and ground beef in the cafeteria, the girls head off to the classroom of Laura Campbell. She specializes in working with hearing-impaired students and has watched over the twins for more than five years.

Campbell provided small-group instruction and sign-language translation for the Bennetts at Chinquapin Middle School. The twins can understand spoken words well enough now to rarely need such services. But Campbell followed them to Carver nearly two years ago, transferring jobs because she wanted to keep helping them.

About a year ago, the girls approached her in school and said they wanted to move out of their mother's chaotic and troubled home.

"It wasn't a healthy situation - not enough clothing or food," said Campbell, herself a single mother. "So I called their grandmother and warned I'd call [state] child protective services if something wasn't done, and she took it from there. She's a wonderful woman."

During a classroom debate about the death penalty, Tiera raises a question.

"If they say murder is a crime because you shouldn't take someone's life," she asks, "then isn't an organization, like Congress, committing a crime when they take someone's life?"

As Campbell discusses it, Ciera rests her head on her desk. "Wake up! You look like you're dead," the teacher shouts.

The bell rings and the girls gather their books. "Goodbye, sweet peas," Campbell says affectionately as they leave.

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