Conjoined twins arrive home to huge welcome
THE parents of Cork-based conjoined twins Hassan and Hussein Benhaffaf who were born seven weeks ago have been inundated with messages of support from well-wishers since they brought their "little fighters" home from hospital earlier this week.
The twins, whose care is shared between Cork University Maternity Hospital and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, were born at University College Hospital in London in December.
The boys spent their first night at home in east Cork on Thursday with their parents Angie and Azzedine and sisters Malika (4) and two-year-old Iman.
Such has been the public response to the birth of the boys that local Cork newspaper, the 'Evening Echo', has announced plans to publish messages of support from readers in the coming weeks. The paper will also pass the messages on to the parents.
Prayers have also been offered for the conjoined twins. The Bishop of Cork and Ross, Dr John Buckley, has said the twins were in his prayers and the prayers of the people of the city and county.
The two boys are not understood to share any major organs and the surgery will take place once the brothers get stronger and put on weight.
On Thursday, the twins' proud parents Angie, who is originally from Togher in Cork city, and Azzedine, who hails from Algeria, spoke to RTE and TV3 about their "little fighters".
"They are a gift -- we feel absolutely blessed by having them," Angie said.
"The first day I held them in my arms I knew I was chosen.
"It wasn't expected that they would live, so hence their nickname, the two little fighters. No one expected them to do as well as they have been doing. Everything is now in God's hands."
Angie said the family's whole world "was turned upside down" when a scan revealed she was having conjoined twins.
"The first day we were totally overwhelmed -- we expected to see one baby on the scan but when we discovered that they were conjoined twins it was like our whole world was turned upside down. It took us six or seven weeks to get our heads around it all."
Their proud mum has insisted on dressing them in different clothing to underline their individuality.
"Since before the boys were born and they were in the womb, they always held hands. They held each other so that is one thing that I want people to know about -- they always mind each other," she explained.
"They fought their way all the way to be here and, please God, later in the year they will continue fighting. We again hope that our privacy at home will be fully respected as we enjoy what will be a very special time for us as a family before we return to London for the boys' separation later this year."
Angie and Azzedine also took the opportunity to thank all the people who cared for them and their young infants at University College Hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital and Cork University Maternity Hospital.
A spokesperson for Cork University Maternity Hospital said both boys are medically very well.
"They are taking their feeds and gaining weight. The neonatal team in Cork is working closely with the family and Great Ormond Street Hospital with the boys' treatment and clinical care."
Edward Kiely, consultant paediatric surgeon at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, in London, said if all goes according to plan, the children will return to Great Ormond Street Hospital later in the year.
"The surgical team here is the most experienced in Europe at assessing and if necessary separating conjoined twins."
Conjoined twins are identical twins whose bodies are joined in utero. A rare phenomenon, the occurrence is estimated to range from 1 in 50,000 births to 1 in 200,000 births, with a somewhat higher incidence in Southwest Asia and Africa. The condition is more frequently found among females, with a ratio of 3:1.
Irish conjoined twins who have survived separation include Niamh and Aoife McDonnell, who were joined at the chest. They were successfully separated 11 weeks after they were born in Manchester in April 1997. They live with their parents in Castlebar, Co Westmeath.
Eilish Holten, Donadea, Co Kildare, born in 1998, survived a procedure to separate her from her sister, Katie, who died following the operation.