‘Strong, beautiful’ conjoined babies separated in marathon 21-hour surgery

A set of identical, conjoined twins will celebrate their first birthday as separate individuals after 21-hour surgery performed last week by doctors in New York.

Ballenie and Bellanie Camacho are recovering well from the surgery, which was performed by a team of 50 pediatric surgeons, anesthesiologists and surgical nursing specialists at Maria Fareri Children's Hospital at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York. The surgery was the first of its kind in the Hudson Valley, according to a news release from the Westchester Medical Center Health Network.

The 11-month-old girls, who were born last Feb. 4 in the Dominican Republic, were connected at the sacrum, a triangular bone at the base of the spine. They also shared part of their gastrointestinal systems and the artery that supplies blood to the pelvic area, hips, thighs and reproductive system.

It took months of planning, including practice sessions and the use of 3D models, for doctors to prepare for the separation, the most complex in a series of medical procedures on the babies. The girls previously underwent gastrointestinal and reconstructive surgery to prepare their bodies to work individually once they were no longer conjoined.

Doctors believe the prognosis for the girls, who struggled for life when conjoined, is a good one.

"Ballenie and Bellanie are as strong as they are beautiful, and this dynamic duo is doing very well after a very long and complex surgery," Dr. Samir Pandya, one of two pediatric surgeons leading the surgical team, said in the news release. "Their attachment presented us with many challenges, but after a successful separation, Ballenie and Bellanie now have chances for better lives."

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The twins' parents, Marino Abel Camacho and Laurilin Celadilla Marte, told Today that they feared for their daughters' lives, particularly Ballenie, who was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect shortly after their birth. Doctors thought the girl, the smaller of the two infants, might die.

Eventually, both girls’ lives were in danger.

"The girls were worse every day," Camacho told Today.

The twins were brought to Maria Fareri, where they and their parents have spent the past three months getting ready for their surgery. If all goes well, doctors say that they could return home to the Dominican Republic in a few more months.

Marte described Bellanie, the stronger of her daughters, as active, observant and joyful.

"She wants to touch everything," Marte told Today. "She's very demanding. She wants everything. If the little one has a toy, she'll take it from her."

Ballenie, who they call their “little butterfly,” is quieter.

“She doesn’t laugh a lot, but when she does, she’s beautiful,” Camacho said.

Even though the girls’ prognosis is promising, much remains unclear. The babies may have continued health issues and it is unknown if they will be able to walk.

Marte said she just wants to see her girls live.

"I want them to go to school, for them to play freely," she told Today. "Even if it's in a wheelchair, anything, but with their freedom and independence."