Legendary neurosurgeon James T. Goodrich stared at the twin boys on the operating tables. Jadon and Anias McDonald had been born conjoined at the head, and it was Goodrich’s task to untangle their brains when they were 13 months old.

Goodrich had been working on the separation surgery for more than 12 hours in Operating Room Number 10 at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. The boys’ blood vessels were more intertwined than 3-D imaging had shown. A wrong cut could be fatal for both boys.

The renowned surgeon needed to decide: Should I proceed or call off the surgery?

Wearing a blue cap decorated with green turtles, Goodrich relied on his mantra: “Take it easy and slowly and carefully.”

Goodrich’s death Monday of coronavirus symbolizes the fears of an entire medical community amid the pandemic — that health-care workers are especially prone to the virus, even when they are not on the front lines.

The hospital did not say, or perhaps doesn’t know, how Goodrich, 73, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Montefiore, contracted the virus, but he had continued working and seeing patients in early March.

Nicole McDonald, the mother of the formerly conjoined boys, has said since the successful surgery in 2016 that Goodrich was a constant presence in her mind.

“Every single time my children wrap their arms around my neck, I think of you,” McDonald said after Goodrich’s death, describing her gratitude to him. “Every milestone they reach is because you believed in them as much as I did.”

I was one of a handful of CNN journalists accompanying our chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, to witness the exceedingly rare, 27-hour surgery in 2016. The hashtag #JadonAndAnias trended on social media as people around the globe rooted for the boys, captivated by all they represented.

Since 1952, there have been only a few dozen twins conjoined at the head who have been successfully separated.

Goodrich was the world’s leading expert on separating such twins, a procedure called craniopagus surgery. He traveled the world lending his expertise to more than 100 cases of conjoined twins. Not every case he examined resulted in surgeries; some were too complex.

Just 1 in 2.5 million live births results in twins born conjoined at the head. Before the mid-1980s, it was accepted medical practice to sacrifice one child on the operating table to save the life of the other. “Parents had to choose which baby would live,” he said at the time.

Many times, both babies died during surgery. Goodrich thought that was unacceptable and dedicated his career to trying to save both twins during operations.

Goodrich established the practice of performing the separation of craniopagus twins in several shorter stages, instead of one operation that could stretch more than 50 hours. That made the procedure easier on the babies and the surgeons.

His colleagues at Montefiore hospital called Goodrich “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” a title he cherished as much as any of his surgical accolades. With a thick white beard and white hair, Goodrich bore an uncanny resemblance to the Dos Equis pitch man from the famed beer ads.

“It started because of the resemblance, but when you began to understand just what kind of person he was, it made perfect sense,” Oren Tepper, the lead plastic surgeon on the McDonald twins’ case, told me.

Deformed skulls sat next to primitive drill bits on the shelves of Goodrich’s Montefiore office. One trinket of “conjoined, parasitic twins,” he said, dated to the 2nd century B.C.

If kids got rowdy in his office, Goodrich pointed to shrunken heads near his desk. “Look what happened the last time a kid annoyed me in here,” he’d tell them.

“Most children stopped acting up,” he said with a chuckle.

His home library was impressive, with thousands of rare medical books and floor-to-ceiling artifacts. For Goodrich, exploring early medicine and the ghoulish nature of mankind was more than a hobby. He ran a side business selling the rare finds.

Among the collection was a scholarly article written in 1929 by Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, the first true antibiotic. The article, published in the British Journal of Experimental Biology, was titled “On the Antibacterial Action of Cultures of a Penicllium with Special Reference to Their Use in the Isolation of B. Influenza.”

Goodrich’s list price: $4,750.

On Halloween, Goodrich walked the halls with a pretend machete embedded in his head. Around the holidays, he baked cookies and hand-delivered them to the nurses around the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore.

His routine on surgery day was to skip breakfast and drink a cappuccino.

Away from the hospital, he loved trotting the globe with a surfboard well into his 70s. He also cherished fine wine, especially a good chardonnay.

The man who became one of the world’s most famous pediatric neurosurgeons barely passed high school, skirting by with C’s and D’s at his school in Oregon.

More surfer than soldier, Goodrich hoped to avoid Vietnam by signing up for the Marine Corps Reserve. He got shipped off to the front lines regardless, and was taken with the skill and dedication of his fellow Marines, as well as the wartime surgeons he encountered.

Back home in California, Goodrich attended the community college Orange Coast College, and while there, a guest lecture by a University of California, Irvine professor changed the trajectory of his life. The professor, James McGaugh, a neuroscientist, became his lifelong mentor.

Because of that friendship, Goodrich said, he learned to value people everywhere — to extend a hand to those who sought help, to embrace those unlike himself and help the most vulnerable. He went on to graduate from the University of California, Irvine and earn his medical degree from Columbia University, where he also earned a doctorate of philosophy.

“What’s so wonderful about his story was this was a failed kid who scratched around and started over in life,” said McGaugh, 88, in an interview this week. “He joined the Marines and then came out. He went to community college because he couldn’t get into any college. He graduated at the top of his class, then came and worked with me.”

Goodrich mentored more than 30 surgeons in his craniopagus technique and shared his beliefs with thousands more through his scholarly works. He planned to host a conference in September that would bring together children from around the world who had been separated at the head, along with their families and medical teams.

News of his death sent shock waves through the already overwhelmed medical community in New York.

Yes, Goodrich held impressive and well-earned titles — he was the director of the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Montefiore and professor of clinical neurological surgery, pediatrics, plastic and reconstructive surgery at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

But perhaps his best talent was his humanity. Colleagues at Montefiore remembered him as a generous man, always willing to help young surgeons hone their craft.

“There is no one I admired and respected more in medicine. His humbleness, sincerity and devotion were second to none,” Tepper said. “He never dabbled — it was always commitment to the max, whether it be work, hobbies, friends or family.”

That legacy was on display in the operating room with the twins. Goodrich led the team of more than 40 doctors, nurses and medical personnel. Instead of making the final cut to separate the twins, Goodrich stepped aside and allowed another member of his team that honor.

“We are official,” Goodrich said after his junior colleague made the final, historic cut.

The room burst into applause.

Wayne Drash, a former CNN health reporter, is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and award-winning author who resides in Atlanta.

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