Constable: Born with four legs, girl now celebrates 2nd birthday with moms on two continents
Born with four legs and parts of two bodies, a baby named Dominique celebrates her second birthday today as a healthy, happy, active girl with two moms who love her. She'll party with her birth mom in their home in the West African nation of Côte d'Ivoire. But she'll likely enjoy an online visit with Nancy Swabb, the Chicago mom who cared for Dominique before and after her life-altering surgery last year at Advocate Children's Hospital in Park Ridge.
"I'm so glad we did this, and she's still part of our lives," says Swabb, who plans to fit in a Dominique video-chat during her busy Mother's Day with her husband, Tim, their daughters Lena, 16, and Mara, 10, her 89-year-old mother Barbara Minster of Orland Park, and others in their extended family. "The world seems like such a smaller place when we can chat with someone some 5,000 miles away. It's like the world is literally in our hands, in that little cellphone we have. We've been video-chatting a couple times a week."
Dominique's family speaks French, but is learning English. "Her dad has her call me 'Mama,'" Swabb says. "And she'll repeat after him, 'I love you.' And she blows kisses."
The unlikely relationship between the two families began last year after Swabb saw a Facebook post explaining how Dominique would have surgery at Advocate Children's Hospital and needed a host family. Swabb, a marketing expert and event planner who served as an infant-care volunteer for a decade at a Chicago hospital, found the website for Children's Medical Mission West, which arranged Dominique's medical care in the United States. She filled out an application, asked 10 friends to write recommendations, and welcomed Dominique within the week.
"She needs love and a place to stay, and we can do it," Swabb remembers thinking. "She was just so beautiful and wonderful, and just connected to me so quickly. She had this big smile her first morning. I just fell in love with her."
The Swabbs put Dominique in a crib in their room. When Tim Swabb cut the baby's nails, as he did for their girls as babies, he had to trim those on the extra feet dangling from Dominique's neck. To say that Dominique is one in a million is an understatement. In the history of world medical records going back more than a century, Dominique is one of maybe 30 cases of children born with a parasitic rachipagus twin condition in which a twin stops developing during gestation but fails to separate from the other body, says Dr. John Ruge, the pediatric neurosurgeon who led the Advocate Children's Hospital team that cared for Dominique. The bottom half of the twin's body -- the waist, spine, bladder, two moving legs and feet -- were protruding from Dominique's neck and back. The medical mission was to remove those parts without paralyzing Dominique, causing a stroke or putting her own organs at risk.
"It was a wonderfully challenging case," Ruge says. "It's why we go into medicine."
His team ordered a plastic mold of Dominique's spine so they could develop a plan and tackle all the complications that might come up during surgery. "It's not unusual to take care of unusual things. You just have to have the skill set to deal with what comes up," Ruge says. "Then you have to problem-solve. That was the fun part, all of us brainstorming."
Ruge and fellow pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Kellogg, pediatric plastic/reconstructive surgeons Drs. Frank Vicari and Jordan P. Steinberg, and orthopedic spine surgeon Dr. Eric Belin performed the six-hour surgery, with another five surgeons standing by in case they were needed. About 50 clinicians worked on the surgery, which transformed a baby with so many issues into a healthy girl.
"I share the same inner smile you do. I'm just really proud of our team," Ruge says. "I have a lot of rewarding cases, but this one is unique. She's a happy little girl, walking around and normal."
Dominique's family made a T-shirt with a photo of Swabb holding Dominique with a thank-you in French to the host mom and the Americans who helped arrange and perform the surgery.
"There can't be enough people caring for your child," Swabb says, adding that she also adds her thanks to the doctors, hospital staff and everyone along the journey.
Despite the distance, the nationalities and the language barrier, the Swabb family has built a lifelong connection with Dominique and her family.
"Moms should help each other whenever they can," Swabb says. The Swabbs are hoping to visit Côte d'Ivoire in a couple of years to reconnect in person. In the meantime, Nancy Swabb "plays" with Dominique by using her cellphone to show her books, alphabet cards, stuffed animals and even a spinning ballerina on a jewelry box.
"I just fell in love with her," Swabb says of Dominique. "I feel we will have a bond forever."