Ciera and Tiera Bennett entered what was like a time machine yesterday when they stepped into a University of Maryland Medical Center room to meet another pair of twins who were joined by the chest at birth and separated by surgeons.
The two 16-year-old high school sophomores from East Baltimore said gazing upon 7-month-old Christine and Loice Onziga was like seeing themselves when they were babies. The Onziga twins, from Leiko, Uganda, were separated April 19 using surgical techniques similar to those used on the Bennetts.
"They are beautiful," Tiera said, as she cradled Loice and played with the infant's fingers, beaming like a new aunt. "It's amazing to see them, and I'm glad they are separated."
Gordon Onziga, the father of the babies who flew with his wife, Margret, to Baltimore for the surgery, said he was delighted to meet the teen-agers whose separation in 1986 provided lessons for the doctors who separated his children.
"I'm really happy, and I hope that my daughters grow up to be exactly like these girls," he said.
Both sets of twins were joined from the neck to the navel when they were born, with their hearts sharing blood, their chest bones connected and their livers joined.
Dr. Laurence Hill, who separated the Bennett twins at the University of Maryland, made a videotape of the 1986 surgery. He gave it to his partner, Dr. Eric Strauch, to help plan for the operation on the Onziga twins. Strauch and his associates copied techniques from the separation of the Bennetts, including the insertion of plastic shields over the hearts of the babies to protect them after the chest bones were cut apart.
During a meeting between the families arranged by hospital staff, the Bennetts' grandmother, Laura Weeks, offered straightforward advice on raising a pair of formerly conjoined twins.
"Just take care of them, have faith and believe in God -- everything is going to be all right," said Weeks. "We call them our miracles, because that's what they are." Gordon Onziga replied: "We are going to pray to God to help us, because it really is heavy work."
The Onziga twins, born Oct. 28, are in good condition but will probably remain at the hospital until the fall to make sure they're healthy before they return to Uganda, Strauch said. The twins aren't eating quite enough, so doctors feed them with a tube to help them gain weight, he said.