When twin sisters Emily and Caitlin Copeland shared the podium as the co-valedictorians at Lutheran High North in Houston last month, the two both leaned in to microphones set at each end of the stage and began their address in a most unusual way. Emily would say a word, Caitlin would add another, and then Emily would quickly say the next. In rhythm, it went on, their voices so alike it sounded as though one voice was speaking perfectly lucid sentences.
Two kids have to be real close to do that. Real close. And, in stark reality, it was the greatest victory song since “The Yellow Rose Of Texas.” The two girls celebrated their 18th birthday two weeks ago and this time back in 1996 the odds they would ever make it out of high school were frightening. They were born close, real close. Too close -- conjoined at birth, which is to say the twins were joined at the abdomen, sharing a liver with the organs discharging through just one of the babies.
A preliminary scan at 17 weeks into the pregnancy alerted the medical staff at Hermann Memorial Children’s Hospital that a phenomenon that occurs in only one of 200,000 live births was about to take place. Between 40 percent and 60 percent of conjoined births are still born and only 35 percent are alive 24 hours after birth. “At the time if you Googled conjoined twins all you got was circus acts and babies that had died,” said their obviously valiant mom, Crystal.
Dr. Kevin Lally, chief of surgery at the thriving children’s hospital, had followed the pregnancy closely and the birth was the hardest emotional trial the parents had ever experienced. “We got the best news we could have hoped for,” Crystal said last week. “They were conjoined at the liver, not at the heart, which, you know, would have been fatal. (Dr. Lally) thought there were good opportunities for separation where they would be able to live normal lives.”
Because one child had a blocked intestine, the surgeons were forced to operate at Day Two but, because there were digestive problems and other hurdles with the newborns, the decision was made to wait for the complete separation at 11 months. That first year was awful; Caitin grew bigger than Emily and would try to roll over on her sister. Emily would flail her arms, screaming, and then Caitlin would try to crawl but Emily was too big for her to move.
Finally the surgery took place and it was immediately learned Emily didn’t have a bile duct. More surgery was required for Emily but, with the Copelands’ strong faith never wavering, the two girls soon started to grow just like other kids all across Texas. Neither girl remembers being conjoined but their parents will never forget. “I think this defined us as a family,” said their father, John. “It strengthened our bond and our faith in each other and,” he grinned, “I don’t think I would change a thing.”
Their mother told reporters the girls are completely opposite. Caitlin likes sports and the outdoors. Emily prefers to stay inside. Caitlin likes meat; Emily likes vegetables better. But ask either one and they’ll both say they are “super close.” Yes, and that whenever they are together they get super loud.
“I think we are pretty close. People always ask us, ‘Do you have powers, like special powers and stuff,’” Caitlin said in her delightful way. “Not really … but we can kind of tell if the other is upset before we even ask.”
The two are also intensely bright, studying constantly with each other. Due to Advanced Placement exams and dual-credit classes both will have 18 credit hours when they enroll in college. Both earned scholarships, too. Caitin played softball and volleyball, was a cheerleader and vice president of the student council. Emily managed the softball team, played clarinet in the school band, was a cheerleader and was secretary of the student council.
But now there is a new challenge. Caitlin will attend Concordia Unversity in Austin while Emily will go to the University of Houston. It will be the first time they have ever been without the other. “It is definitely going to be very hard, really hard. I’ve cried about it,” Caitlin admitted, “but we both know it is good for us. College is where you go to find your own way.”
A writer in Houston asked each to describe the other. Caitlin said Emily “is the most dedicated person I have ever met. When she puts her mind to something she never backs down, and she tries to make everyone happy.” Emily said that Caitlin “is funny and compassionate. She always tries to make me feel better and won’t settle for anything less than perfection. Oh … and she’s the best friend to have as a best friend!”
For a long time the family was private about the girls’ tough start but now, with their 18th birthday, maybe it is time to share the wonderful way everything has turned out. “We want to use this blessing to be a blessing to others. I hope we can help so many people and just be,” Emily paused to search for the right words, “a story to read and smile about when everything looks bad.”
Or, as Caitlin quickly added, “I would just say to other families, ‘Just don’t expect the worst.’”
No, the Copeland twins have now proven to the world the best is yet to be, even if it did … well, maybe mean missing a chance to be in the circus.
Dr. Kevin Lally, surgeon in chief at Hermann Memorial Children's Hospital in Houston, stands between twins Caitlin and Emily Copeland, who he separated after they were born conjoined 18 years ago.
- Photo2 by Hermann Memorial Children's Hospital