Christian and Nicole McDonald wheel their their twins Jadon and Anias, and oldest son Aza in strollers as they leave their rehab facility at Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, NY and head home for the first time on September 1, 2017. Credit: Mark Kauzlarich for CNN
Formerly conjoined twins return home
04:30 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Jadon and Anias McDonald, once joined at the head, return home

The twin boys underwent extensive therapy over the past nine months

Valhalla, New York CNN  — 

Nicole and Christian McDonald entered their boys’ hospital room for a final time.

In a corner room of Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, New York, Jadon and Anias had recovered for the past nine months of extensive rehabilitation after the surgery to separate the formerly conjoined twins.

The two boys captivated millions around the world when they underwent a 27-hour separation surgery in October. The twins, who were 13 months old at the time, had shared 5 centimeters by 7 centimeters of brain tissue, making the complicated surgery that much more difficult.

Jadon and Anias had known the world only from lying on their backs, and the surgery set them back to infancy in terms of speech and gross motor skills. In recovery, they learned how to use muscles they never knew they had. Just sitting up was a monumental task.

Doctors feared that Anias might never be able to use his right side. Yet in rehab, he’s begun using his right hand almost as much as his left.

Their final day at Blythedale is one Nicole and Christian had dreamed of since before the surgery. The family transported their lives from small-town Illinois to New York in February 2016 to prepare for the procedure.

The boys had been in the hospital almost constantly since then, first at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center, where the surgery took place, and then Blythedale. They turn 2 years old on Saturday.

Gone are the fears of the surgery itself. The hour-long trips to the hospital. The longing to have their family under one roof.

Nicole lifted Anias from his hospital crib. “Are you ready to go?” she asked, cradling him close to her heart.

Across the room, Christian picked up Jadon and told him that he’ll soon “get to hang out at home.”

“You get to ride in a minivan,” he said. “You get to be a normal little boy.”

The boys were placed in a double umbrella stroller. Jadon sported a white helmet with a red Velcro strap; Anias wore a helmet with a blue stripe.

Dad pushed their stroller down the hall. Mom and their 4-year-old brother, Aza, accompanied them.

It was time to go home. Finally.

‘God works through people’

The McDonald home teems with activity. Nicole and Christian purchased the home in foreclosure in the spring. Nestled in New York’s Orange County, with views of the Catskill Mountains, it was in need of extensive renovation.

Christian worked almost around the clock to get it ready for his boys, ripping off siding and tearing up old carpet. A few weeks ago, four guys from Texas who are affiliated with their church showed up to help. In just 2½ days, they built front stairs, installed siding, replaced windows, refurbished the laundry room and renovated a bathroom.

Most important, they ran an electrical circuit to the boys’ room to handle all of their specialized medical equipment. Anias will need a feeding tube, as well as a breathing machine and a suction machine to aid in his care. The family will eventually have home nurses for 16 hours a day.

Less than 24 hours before the boys’ return, the split-level ranch home seemed more like the site of a renovation reality show, with Christian burning the midnight oil to complete the work. Aided by his minister and two church members, he pulled up carpet in the basement playroom and laid tiles.

On the wall, a quote from American philosopher and psychologist William James: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.”

Upstairs, Nicole prepared a chili feast. She traveled back and forth between the hospital and home so much, it’s rare to be able to cook dinner.

She had to fight back to tears while slicing onions. The tears, she said with a laugh, are “not from the onions.” They’re for the overwhelming excitement at the idea of bringing Jadon and Anias home. Earlier, she’d walked through their room. Their newly assembled cribs waited to be occupied.

“My kids have never been home separate,” she said. “I’m so excited, I can hardly stand it. It feels like it’s not even real. We’ve never been home and each held a kid. It’s going to be awesome.”

Christian joined her in the kitchen to reflect on the monumental journey the family has been on for the past year. He said the boys have been in hospitals for so long – nearly 1½ years, counting the months before the surgery – that feels like, in a weird way, Jadon and Anias have been wards of the hospital and less his own children. “It’s almost like I get to be a dad to them for the first time,” he said.

That’s not to say he’s not appreciative of everything the hospitals have done, from the surgeons at Montefiore who operated on them to the staff at Blythedale who worked tirelessly to get Jadon and Anias to this point.

“I’m feeling pretty excited getting to hold my kids sitting on my couch and actually just hold one at a time,” he said. “It’s like I have my sons now, you know?”

Christian and Nicole McDonald load their twins, Jadon and Anias, into the family van as they head home from rehab for the first time.

The last time the boys were home, Jadon and Anias were still connected at the head. Any time their parents needed to move them, they had to carry them together in a carefully choreographed way.

The family lived in a rental home in the Bronx. Now, they have their own home. They want to push the boys in strollers to the park. They want to take them to the local pizza joint. Simply put, they just want to be a family.

“I can’t wait to show them the world,” Nicole said.

More than anything else, Christian said, “I’m just so excited for them. I’m sure they just want to come home and be with their family, and we want them to come home.”

Both parents express gratitude for everyone who has reached out to them and prayed for their boys. Devout Christians, the parents say their faith has sustained them during this arduous journey.

“Times like this really shows us that it is God’s help,” Christian said. “God works through people.”

Added Nicole, “This strengthened my faith. If I didn’t have God in my life, I would not have made it.”

A member of their church donated their minivan. Strangers generously gave more than $340,000 to the family’s GoFundMe account – money that has supported the family the past year, aided in the purchase of their home and helped pay off huge medical bills.

The journey has in no way been easy. The months since the surgery have seen both boys stave off seizures and serious infections that resulted in trips to the intensive care unit.

But the parents say they are prepared to handle whatever comes next.

“We had miracle upon miracle upon miracle happen with these children to get them to where they are now,” Nicole said. “We have our children coming home.”

‘Motivated’ boys ready to tackle the world

The boys’ road to recovery was made possible thanks to the dedicated staff at Blythedale Children’s Hospital. In additional to physical therapy, they received speech and occupational therapy five days a week. The boys will still return for three days of therapy a week for the foreseeable future.

20 McDonald family conjoined twins
Separating Jadon & Anias: The Recovery
06:15 - Source: CNN

Mara Abrams has worked with Jadon as his physical therapist and says his tenacity has been awe-inspiring. He loves books, he loves toys, and he loves life. She said he’s learning to pull himself up on furniture and walking sideways along the furniture with a bit of help. He’s nearly crawling, too.

“The first step in a wonderful life is about to happen,” Abrams said. “It’s just so great that the hospitalization is over.”

Jadon’s progression is nothing short of amazing, she said. It was difficult and intimidating when he first arrived because he’d only known life from lying on his back.

“All of a sudden, the whole world changed for him,” she said. “I know it took so much time for him to visually accept that the world wasn’t meant for him to lie down, that he had to come into a vertical position and figure out this is what the world looks like.”

A collection of family photos hangs in the dining room of the McDonalds' home.

But with help, Jadon took off. “Every day, he’s always been a cheerful, happy guy. He throws his arms out; he squeals with delight. He loves going to therapy. I’m just so happy they’re going to have real-life experiences.”