Lying comfortably in a wagon in the lobby of Primary Children's Hospital, Maliyah Herrin has a choice: she can wait with her parents while they speak to a reporter, or she can go back to her room.
The 4-year-old formerly conjoined twin chooses neither.
"I want to go see Mike," she said.
Her parents give her the options again, but Maliyah is even more insistent.
"I want to go see Mike."
"Who?" this reporters asks. Mike Wazowski from the Disney/Pixar movie "Monsters Inc.," Maliyah's parents, Jake and Erin Herrin, explain.
He's downstairs, Maliyah continues, speaking of a life-size replica of the fictional character at the children's hospital and launching into questions about other characters in the movie.
"We will go see Mike later," Maliyah's parents tell her.
Now the little girl is tenacious. Compromise is not an option; she's already had more than her share of that. "I want to go see Mike Wazowski. I want to go see him right now."
For the last four and a half years, Maliyah and her twin sister Kendra made all their decisions together. But today, Maliyah is with her parents and Kendra is resting in her room. The Herrins find that simple reality miraculous.
Maliyah's father excuses himself, pulling his happy daughter to the elevator, en route to see Mike. Maliyah's mother seizes the quiet moment to recount small portions of the family's journey. A story that began months before Maliyah and Kendra were born, and climaxed when doctors separated the conjoined twins in a 26-hour marathon surgery. (The Church News featured the twins in a cover story Aug. 19.)
In reflection, everything about the girls' lives, including their mother's pregnancy, their first years, the surgery that separated them, and their future is nothing short of a miracle, Sister Herrin said.
Even before ultrasound confirmed it, she told family members she thought she was having twins. It was a feeling she couldn't shake; she knew her pregnancy was important.
Then at 18 weeks, Sister Herrin went in for a routine checkup. A radiologist, using ultrasound, happily reported that there were two babies. Then her facial expression changed. The Herrins spent the next several days learning about conjoined twins and what that meant for their children.
Conjoined twins make up about 1 in 50,000 to 100,000 births and happen when a fertilized egg starts to split, as with typical identical twins, but doesn't finish.
The Herrins were given the option to terminate the pregnancy. "The same day they asked us," recalled Sister Herrin, "we knew what our answer would be."
However, the pregnancy was not without "significant complications." At 26 weeks, Sister Herrin's water broke. She spent seven weeks in the hospital on bed rest. The Lord, she said, "carried me through the pregnancy."
Then on Feb. 26, 2002, Kendra Deen and Maliyah Mae were born. "Even after they were born, we didn't know very much about them," recalled Sister Herrin, explaining that they were so small it was hard to get accurate scans.
Over time, however, the couple learned that the Ischiopagus/Omphalopagus conjoined twins shared an abdomen, pelvis, liver, kidney and large intestine. Each sister controlled one of two legs.
Brother and Sister Herrin's large families stepped in to help care for the babies; it took an hour and a half to get them ready for bed at night. And although relatively healthy, the babies had setbacks. Maliyah didn't immediately gain weight and the girls spent their first birthday in the hospital's intensive care unit on ventilators.
Still the Herrins had a comforting feeling that things would be all right.
They scoured the Internet to find information to help them. They soon realized they could adapt most things purchased at the store a high chair, for example to work for them. "I always wanted more for my girls," Sister Herrin said. "I always wanted to find out what I could."
The couple contacted other parents of conjoined twins; they even found a translator to talk to parents of twins from Mexico.
And they began fasting and praying for the girls in an attempt to figure out what would be best for them. Some days they felt separating the twins was the answer; others they determined to keep them together. They would set their minds on a solution and pray about it.
The answer wasn't clear, however, until last year. Then they knew what they needed to do for their daughters. They began preparing to separate the girls.
Surgery seemed so far away; some days "we didn't think it would ever happen," said Sister Herrin. Most of the time separation surgeries are done when the twins are 6 to 12 months old. But because the Herrin twins shared Kendra's kidney, their surgery was delayed.
Then on Aug. 7, in a landmark procedure that lasted 26 hours and garnered international attention, Kendra and Maliyah were separated. The operation became the first of its kind performed on twins who shared a single kidney. Doctors separated their bodies and liver, and reconstructed their divided pelvis. Each girl kept one leg and Kendra kept the kidney, which was in her body. In coming months, Sister Herrin hopes to donate a kidney to Maliyah, who is currently on dialysis.
Before the surgery, the Herrins educated their daughters and answered all the girls' questions. They told them to be brave. Everyone had a peaceful feeling.
Still, on the day of the surgery "letting go was the hardest," Sister Herrin said.
A doctor told her to go upstairs, compose herself and "start praying for us and don't stop praying for us."
Sister Herrin remembered the blessings her husband had given the girls the night before. He promised they would be missionaries. While doctors were operating on the twins, 2,000 to 3,000 e-mails arrived from across the globe.
Kendra and Maliyah were already missionaries, their mother realized. "We always had a sense that things would be OK. We always were comforted."
They also thought about the things they have learned from the girls patience, understanding of things that are not normal, everyday occurrences, and tolerance, Brother Herrin said.
He thought about what he would miss when the girls were separate. On the top of his list is taking the twins out in public, hearing them say hi to strangers and seeing people, obviously touched, smile back.
"We loved them like that," Sister Herrin said. "We love them still."
The Herrins knew they made the right decision, however. Doctors told them they felt "guided" during the surgery. No one expected the operation, which included no major surprises and during which the girls required very little blood, to go so well.
Doctors warned the family that the girls still have a long road ahead of them. Infection could set back the girls' progress, Kendra suffered from an intestinal blockage that required surgery Sept. 6, and Maliyah still needs a kidney transplant. In addition, both girls will also likely have several reconstructive surgeries and need to learn to walk with crutches or maybe a prosthetic leg.
"We know there will be challenges," Brother Herrin said.
"We will get through them," Sister Herrin added. "We always do. We always get through them together."
In the meantime, Brother Herrin made plans to watch a football game with Maliyah. He was also happy to report that Kendra, who doesn't like football, won't have to watch one game this season, if she doesn't want to.
Sister Herrin thinks maybe Kendra will want to go shopping with her instead. The girls, she explained, now need an entirely new wardrobe.
Since surgery the girls have argued over a book and when Kendra wasn't feeling well she requested that Maliyah who asks countless questions go to her own room. They have also shared a bed, had a wagon race, played with bubbles and held hands. They have each spent countless hours with their big sister Courtney, and seen their twin brothers, 1-year-old Austin and Justin.
They are happy, their parents report. They are average 4-year-olds. "They do much better together," Sister Herrin said. "They do OK separate."
In the lobby of Primary Children's Hospital, Maliyah said she felt fine. She said she likes Dora the Explorer. Then she excused herself. "My sister wants to see me," she said.
The Herrins are used to answering questions about their daughters. And there's one question everyone asks, even though they already know the answer.
"What do we hope for our children?" Brother Herrin repeats out loud. "We want them to be whatever they want to be."
They are smart. Their options are endless, he said, noting that now they can make future choices without compromise. Kendra is a leader. Maliyah is inquisitive. Each will find her way.
Kendra recently told a nurse she wanted to be a doctor, someday even operating on other little girls who are "stuck together," he said.
And Maliyah, the little girl who asks all the questions?
"Maybe," her father said, "she will be a reporter."
For more information about Kendra and Maliyah visit: www.herrintwins.com.
E-mail to: [email protected]