By Kris Coronado
Sunday, November 28, 2010; W05
They called it "the best Father's Day gift ever."
On June 19, 2004 -- a day prior to the paternal holiday -- Melissa and Kevin Buckles had the most harrowing and euphoric day of their lives. After 2 hours of surgery at Children's National Medical Center in the District, surgeon Gary Hartman cut the last bit of tissue that remained between the Buckleses' 4-month-old daughters, Erin and Jade. Applause erupted. Until that moment, the girls, connected at the chest and abdomen since birth, hadn't known life without the constant body warmth of a twin. The separation procedure, chronicled in a Washington Post story, gave each girl an opportunity to enjoy life on her own terms.
Six years later, Melissa, 37, is sitting at the kitchen table in the family's Stafford home, slicing up pizza for Jade and big sister Taylor. Erin, who is eating a hot dog, frowns and whispers a plea into her mother's ear.
"No, you have to finish it," Melissa says. "She has to drink milk for her osteoporosis," she explains. "But she really doesn't like milk."
Erin, now in first grade, is a paraplegic. The osteoporosis is a result of the lack of pressure on her leg bones over the years. The family had consulted doctors when Erin failed to keep pace with Jade's physical development, which was normal. "There was this denial at first," Melissa says, recalling the day in September 2004 when doctors said that Erin had apparently suffered a stroke during the separation surgery, paralyzing her just below her arms.
Soon, the family faced another obstacle. A year after the twins' separation, the Buckleses noticed that their older daughter, Taylor, was limping slightly and having frequent bladder accidents. An MRI scan showed a spinal tumor. A neurosurgeon was able to remove much of the tumor, but the rest is still tethered to the girl's spine. Now 9, Taylor must use a catheter to urinate and is losing function in her right leg.
After reading about neurologist John McDonald in Christopher Reeve's book "Nothing Is Impossible," Melissa sought therapy for Erin -- and later Taylor -- at the pediatric spinal cord rehabilitation program McDonald runs at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Although spinal cord injuries are often viewed as untreatable, McDonald says, children "have a special ability to recover from injuries to the nervous system."
Erin continues to make progress: She's now taking small steps using leg braces. But the news about Taylor isn't as encouraging. The specialists think that the loss in nerve function in Taylor's right calf is stunting the growth of her leg. Decisions await: Should they halt the growth of Taylor's left leg to match her right or attempt to lengthen her right leg?
For now, the family is taking it all a day at a time. Kevin, the drum major of the U.S. Marine Drum & Bugle Corps, travels frequently for performances. Melissa works as a math assistant at her daughters' school. The family is preparing for a trip to Disney World and Universal Studios in December, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Read the original story: 'The Best Father's Day Gift Ever' (Post, June 20, 2004)