A Rare Case Gets Uncommonly Good Care

Angie Benzschawel and Ryan Shaw of Wisconsin with their formerly conjoined twin sons, McHale and Mateo.
Angie Benzschawel and Ryan Shaw of Wisconsin with their formerly conjoined twin sons, McHale and Mateo. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
By John Kelly
Thursday, December 14, 2006

Who will separate our babies?

That was the question Ryan Shaw and Angie Benzschawel had to answer after learning that Angie was carrying conjoined twins. Who would perform the delicate surgery that would allow their unborn sons -- growing inside Angie and joined at the spine -- to live separately?

The Wisconsin couple traveled to the East Coast to visit several hospitals. They interviewed doctors and spoke with parents who had been in similar situations. Then they returned to their Sheboygan home to make the most important decision of their lives: Who will separate our babies?

They had to agree on the selection. It wouldn't be good, they decided, if Angie wanted one hospital and Ryan another. Each took a piece of paper, and in their bedroom, they wrote down their choices -- "So we couldn't change our minds," Ryan said later. They folded the papers in half and handed them to each other.

And then they opened them.

"Both of them said the same thing," Ryan said: Children's Hospital.

Mateo and McHale were born May 10 at Washington Hospital Center and then whisked to Children's. They were separated Sept. 6 after 19 hours of surgery. The family flew home Saturday. Before they left, I met the boys and talked with Angie and Ryan about their stay in Washington.

The couple laughed, saying that despite spending eight months in the nation's capital, they hadn't seen very much of it.

"We didn't get out as much as we wanted," said Ryan, 28. "We haven't even seen the White House," said Angie, 25.

They did sample some of the Cherry Blossom Festival, although it wasn't what they expected. Ryan said that in Wisconsin, any event including the word "festival" involves beer and bratwurst.

Mainly, their life was centered around Children's Hospital, a place they came to know very well. They said they picked it because of something the Buckles family of Stafford County had told them. Kevin and Melissa Buckles's daughters, Jade and Erin, were the first conjoined twins separated at Children's.

Many hospitals, the Buckleses said, have skilled doctors and nurses. Children's, they said, is exceptional at every level: from the people who clean the rooms to the surgeons who perform the painstaking procedures.

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