Conjoined twins: Proud parents show off their 'little fighters'
'They are a gift -- we feel absolutely blessed by having them. The first day I held them in my arms I knew I was chosen'
PROUD parents Angie and Azzedine Benhaffaf yesterday gave Ireland the first glimpse of their thriving seven-week-old conjoined twin boys.
The boys -- Hassan and Hussein -- are scheduled to undergo a marathon separation operation later this year in a specialist London hospital.
Crucially, the two boys are understood not to share any major organs and surgeons are planning for the separation procedure once the pair get stronger.
Yesterday, their proud mother and father, who also have two young daughters, allowed their sons to be photographed at Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) before they were discharged and brought to the family home in east Cork.
"They are a gift -- we feel absolutely blessed by having them. 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, acknowledging there was huge public interest in the pair's progress.
The boys were born at University College Hospital (UCH) in London and brought to CUMH at the end of December where they gained enough weight to be sent home. "They are getting stronger day by day and they know how much they are loved," Cork woman Angie added.
She 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."
Initially, it was feared that the twin boys would not survive but, to their parents' delight, they battled through to a successful delivery.
Angie said she could already detect different personalities in the twins -- and she 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 (through the separation procedure)."
Proud dad Azzedine, who is originally from Algeria, said he now only wanted to take his boys home.
"I feel very proud of my two little boys -- they look beautiful, handsome. There is no difference between conjoined twins and ordinary babies because they are all beautiful.
"I am so proud of them," Azzedine said.
"We are thrilled to be able to bring them home today -- we felt a bit like fugitives coming in and out of here (the hospital)," he added. The couple thanked the media for respecting their privacy until now -- and said they were only going public because of their appreciation of the overwhelming interest in the case.
The couple have also been overwhelmed by the messages of support and best wishes for their boys.
The care of their twin boys is now shared between CUMH and Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London.
"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 (operation) later this year," Angie said.
The couple are particularly keen that the boys get a chance to settle into the routine of family life with their two older sisters, Malika (4) and Iman (2).
Both parents said they had been overwhelmed by the support and kindness offered by the medical teams, both in Ireland and the UK.
"We wish to record our gratitude to all the truly wonderful staff in Cork University Maternity Hospital for the care and attention they have lavished on ourselves and the boys," they added.
The boys were born in mid-December in London's UCH after Angie was transferred to the UK for her delivery.
Consultant paediatric surgeon Edward Kiely said they were planning a major operation on the twins later this year.
"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," he said.
Conjoined or 'Siamese' twins are extremely rare and only occur on average once in every 250,000 births.
Hassan and Hussein are the first conjoined twins born to an Irish mother since 2005.
The first high-profile separation of Irish conjoined twins occurred in 1997, when Aoife and Niamh McDonnell from Castlebar, Co Mayo, underwent surgery.
The operation on the twins took place in a Manchester hospital almost three months after their birth in April 1997.
A second high-profile separation was less successful when Eilish and Katie Holden from Kildare were operated on.
The twins -- who were born in 1998 -- were successfully separated but, tragically, Katie died shortly after the surgery.