Problem Parent

updated 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE NIGHT KEN LAKEBERG, found out his wife, Joey, 25, was pregnant with conjoined—or Siamese—twins, he hit the roof. "He busted a toilet all to pieces," says Jack Burge, a neighbor at the Ten Oaks Mobile Home Park in Lake Village, Ind. "I guess it upset him." Two days later, on Christmas, Lakeberg—who admits he was depressed over his wife's condition—spent the afternoon drinking with his cousin, Jeffrey Lynn. The two got into a fight and Lakeberg, an unemployed welder, slashed Lynn's hand with a butcher knife. In a note written to Judge Daniel Molter of the Newton County Superior Court after he was arrested for the stabbing, Lakeberg confessed to an alcohol problem but pleaded for clemency, saying he needed to "be there for my wife." Lynn, who has not spoken to his cousin since, says, "I know he's a good person. But he's got a bad part of him."

That part seems to have been getting the better of Lakeberg, 26, ever since his daughters, Amy and Angela, were born on June 29, sharing one heart and one liver. For years, Ken Lakeberg has had a history of unemployment, alcohol abuse and run-ins with the law. And even as his twins were being surgically separated Aug. 20—with Amy's life sacrificed to give Angela a chance at survival—Ken was spending $8,000 raised for funeral and medical expenses on a car, meals and drugs. "Sure, I went out and had some fun, but the fun's over, man," Lakeberg told a Chicago TV station last week. "We ate at nice places. We traveled good. I mean, I think we deserve at least that much."

In fact, Lakeberg seems to want more. Following the pioneering surgery at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, he began working all the angles—financial and otherwise—of his newfound celebrity. He milked the attention of hordes of waiting reporters, returning to a press conference that his wife had already ended. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a guy, to get on TV and talk to the world," he explained. He offered to play himself in a movie version of his story (though so far no deal has been made). And he began demanding cash—"under the table," as he put it—from reporters before granting interviews. In his defense, he says, "Hey, I'm not a perfect person. I'm an American."

Some of his former neighbors and in-laws, however, think he deserves nothing at all. Residents of the Ten Oaks trailer park, from which the Lakebergs were evicted last May for nonpayment of rent, say Lakeberg was "a druggie," often drunk. They complained to police about his rowdy, all-night parties.

Court records seem to bear out these charges. In 1989, Lakeberg was given a year's probation after pleading guilty to a charge of drunk driving. The following year he was accused of assault on a woman, but the charges were dismissed. As a result of the stabbing at Christmas, Lakeberg was charged with aggravated battery. He pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and received a year's probation in May. A month later he admitted to violating his probation after a drug test revealed traces of cocaine in his system. On Sept. 3 there will be a hearing to consider revoking his probation, and Lakeberg could receive up to a year in prison. He doesn't seem worried. "I may have to serve a few weekends in jail," he says. "It's no big deal."

Lakeberg's wife, Joey, and her older brothers and sisters (some of whom have set up a trust fund for the twins that Ken has no access to) prefer not to talk about Ken. Michael O'Dor, 45, the oldest, will say only, "You can imagine our attitude." Still, they are sticking by Joey (born Reitha Joann Studer), who was raised in Lake Village, the youngest of 10 children of Reitha Joan Studer and George O'Dor. Her parents divorced when Joey was an infant, and three years later her mother married Edmund Studer, a machinist. Joey met Ken Lakeberg, who grew up in nearby Portage, seven years ago at a Fourth of July picnic, and their first daughter, Shervon, was born out of wedlock in 1987. Two and a half years later, Ken and Joey married.

Joey's sister, Theresa Hubbell, was with Joey on Dec. 23 when she learned that her twins were conjoined. The doctor advised Joey to have an abortion. "She just looked at me and cried," remembers Theresa. Joey later told reporters, "It was like my heart was taken out and tore in half. But I couldn't just give up."

Joey made at least two appointments for an abortion but never went through with it. After talking over her problems with a Lutheran minister, she and Ken consulted with doctors at the Catholic-run Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill. There, Dr. John Gianopoulas performed an ultrasound that confirmed the babies shared a heart and a liver. He informed her of the odds facing the babies; Their chances of survival, he said, were slim.

But Ken and Joey, who weighs a mere 89 lbs., decided to carry the twins to term. At 37 weeks, on June 29, Amy and Angela, weighing little more than 9 lbs. altogether and sharing a malformed heart containing six instead of the normal four chambers, were delivered at Loyola by cesarean section.

Dr. Jonathan Muraskas, a neonatologist at Loyola, says he advised the Lakebergs against surgery to separate the infants. An operation separating twins sharing a heart has only been performed six times before, and the longest a surviving twin has lived is three months. "I was pretty forceful," he says. "I told them, 'We're not God. The babies want us to let them go to heaven.' "

But the Lakebergs chose to go ahead with the surgery. "If there's a chance at least one of them can survive," Joey said at the time, "then it will be worth the pain." Or, as Ken said about the twins' chances, "People win the lottery every week. Why can't we?"

So on Aug. 17 the twins were flown by Learjet from Chicago to Philadelphia, where doctors had agreed to consider the surgery. (Tapping into a limited amount of money set aside for needy patients, Loyola and Children's Hospital both agreed to absorb the medical costs—now estimated at some $400,000 and rising.) When they learned that the 5½-hour operation had gone as hoped—that Angela, whose portion of the heart was better developed, had survived—the family, says Reither Studer, "had mixed feelings of grief and sorrow."

"Mixed" is also an apt description of how the rest of the clan is feeling these days. For there are few signs that Ken Lakeberg is settling down. Even at the wake, the night before Amy Lakeberg's Aug. 24 funeral, a fistfight broke out between Ken and one of his brothers-in-law over whether to keep the tiny casket open or closed. Still, publicly at least, Lakeberg is trying to play a responsible role. The Indiana funeral over, he and Sheryon rejoined Joey, who stayed behind with Angela in Philadelphia. He told reporters he is getting help for his drug and alcohol problems. There is, after all, an infant tenaciously clinging to life. Angela's heart is functioning normally, and doctors express tentative hope that she will outlive their earlier expectations. "At least now we have one of the girls to watch growing up," says Joey's sister Georgia. "Joey did the right thing, and everybody can see that now."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
GRANT PICK, LEAH ESKIN and BONNIE BELL in Newton County, BARBARA SANDLER and LUCHINA FISHER in Chicago, SARAH SKOLNIK in Philadelphia, and bureau reports

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