To the Obermaiers, Carrie and Chrissie Are Lovely Babies Who Just Happen to Be Siamese Twins

updated 09/29/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1980 01:00AM

Like any new parents, Nancy and Richard Obermaier are enchanted by their twins. They wheel Christine and Caroline, 9 months, around their Chicago block in an oversize buggy, dress them in identical frocks, recruit grandmothers to babysit and grapple with the logistics of caring for two infants when only one was expected.

Strangers looking at Chrissie and Carrie, who are Siamese twins, see babies joined, horrendously, at the head. But the Obermaiers, with a vision refined by courage and love, see two beautiful daughters.

The parents have achieved that understanding by singular determination and the guarded optimism of doctors about the twins' chances of being separated successfully. Still, the Obermaiers have inevitably asked, "Why us?"

Rich, 35, a Chicago police detective, admits he first felt panic. Now, he says, "I haven't a negative attitude anymore. I have two normal little girls who happen to be attached. A lot of people have worse problems." Adds Nancy: "For three months we banged our heads against the wall. Then gradually we realized nothing we could do would change what happened. We decided to take the twins home and enjoy them, and laugh at the things they do."

One of every 50,000 births results in conjoined twins, probably because the cell masses, from which the children grow, fail to separate in early pregnancy for unknown reasons. About 75 percent of Siamese twins are stillborn, or die within hours of birth. Fusing at the skull occurs only once in every 2½ million births.

The Obermaier twins were three months premature. On January 2 Nancy left her job as a physical education instructor at a park district sport center complaining of cramps. Rich drove her to Ravenswood Hospital the next morning. The twins were born by cesarean section at 7:23 a.m. on January 3. They weighed 4 lbs. 11 oz. total. "When they were born," recalls Nancy, 27, "they were so tiny, I couldn't imagine they were real people." Within six hours the babies were moved across the city to a high-risk nursery at the University of Illinois Hospital.

After 100 days the girls went home, where the Obermaiers seem to have managed their infancy with deceptive ease. Both babies have enormous appetites and now weigh 26 pounds. (At 25½ inches Carrie is an inch longer.) They eat lying on a king-size pillow. Chrissie learned the first word, "Dada"—but both are TV addicts. Chrissie sits in front of the set in a special chair Rich fashioned, while Carrie watches in a mirror. At bath time one parent gets into the tub with them. Mother and father try not to spoil the twins; if one wakes up, Nancy waits until the other is awakened before responding. Dad frequently scoops his daughters into his arms in a tender bear hug, and Mom soothes them with Irish lullabies. Already the girls have different personalities. Chrissie is a bit fussy, while Carrie smiles most of the time. Chrissie is curious, Carrie placid.

Both grandmothers are frequent and doting visitors, but the twins' outings beyond the neighborhood are rare. "We don't take them to public places," Nancy explains. "It is a shock to see them. Old people and kids are the worst." At a department store recently, before wheeling the carriage in, Nancy covered the twins with a blanket. Carrie impatiently pulled it off. An elderly woman walked over to admire the babies, then abruptly halted. "It threw this poor woman for a loop," Nancy recalls. "All she could say was, 'Oh dear, I'm sorry.' 'Don't be sorry,' I told her. 'They will be fine.' "

The Obermaiers are neither naive nor unrealistically hopeful. The twins' specialists include Dr. Oscar Sugar, the neurosurgeon who in 1952 first successfully separated Siamese twins joined at the head. (Roger Brodie survived that operation a month; his brother Rodney died at 10 after choking on a piece of food.) In about three months Sugar will begin a series of operations on the twins; the first should reduce the area of attachment and enhance their mobility. (They are already scuttling around the crib.)

"There is a reasonable chance we will be able to separate the twins," Sugar allows cautiously. Carrie and Chrissie have separate brains and arterial systems. Their skulls are fused and they share a few veins that drain blood from the brain. These will not be disturbed during the first operation. Sometime next year Sugar hopes to be able to cut the veins in half lengthwise, then create new veins for each girl. The surgery will be performed at the university hospital's new neurosurgery facilities which open this winter.

Both Nancy and Rich are natives of Chicago who met in a local singles' bar. Though Rich was there with his fiancée, he soon broke the engagement and dated Nancy for two years before they were married in December 1978. Nancy has not worked since the twins' birth. Rich, a police officer since 1970, is on general assignment, investigating crimes from purse snatching to kidnapping.

The Obermaiers plan to take a holiday "when everyone is all fixed up. We are going to see Disneyland," Nancy proclaims. "I tell my girls when they are better they can have a brother or sister. But I won't have another baby until these two are all right." The family medical bills already total $200,000, which so far has been covered by insurance.

Buoyed by their Catholic faith, the Obermaiers refuse to despair. "I'm not going to sit around and mope," Nancy says. "It doesn't do Rich or me any good." Their attitude recalls the words of a nurse at the hospital. "They give their love freely to both children," she marveled. "They have a very special gift within."

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