Story transcripts

The Power of Love

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Reporter: Ray Martin
Producers: Sandra Cleary and Skye Gilkeson

It's hard to imagine a tougher start to life. Triplets Madeline, Macey and Mackenzie were abandoned by their drug-addicted mother at birth.

And if that wasn't enough, two of the girls, Macey and MacKenzie, were joined at the pelvis.

Their fused bodies made adoption a long shot. No one wanted them.

Then along came Jeff and Darla Garrison, a simple and selfless farm couple with a steadfast belief in the power of faith, family and love.

Extra features on this report:

Read Michael Usher's blog on this story and have your say

PHOTOS: Ray Martin meets a real life Brady Bunch in the Garrison family

Full transcript:

STORY -

RAY MARTIN: Meet Madeline and Macey and Mackenzie. They're the amazing Garrison triplets, but they're triplets with a difference - two of them were born conjoined and had to be separated at the pelvis. Now, almost eight, they never stand still, never stop talking or laughing. And, although they've been surgically separated, they still have something in common.

RAY MARTIN: Macey, do you know what Mackenzie's thinking?

MACEY GARRISON: Yeah.

RAY MARTIN: You do? Even if she doesn't tell you?

MACEY GARRISON: No, I can read her mind, kind of, and she reads my mind.

MACKENZIE GARRISON: What am I thinking about right now?

MACEY GARRISON: You're thinking about ice-cream!

MACKENZIE GARRISON: No.

MACEY GARRISON: Yeah, you are.

MACKENZIE GARRISON: Lollipops.

RAY MARTIN: That's pretty close! So, Mackenzie, what's Macey thinking about now?

MACKENZIE GARRISON: She's thinking about ice-cream.

MACEY GARRISON: Ah-ha! I LOVE ice-cream! Ice-cream!

RAY MARTIN: The third triplet, Madeline, was born perfectly normal - bright and bubbly. This was the triplets on their first birthday. And this was them just a few weeks before, when Macey and Mackenzie were still joined together. Back then, their future was grim until Jeff and Darla Garrison came into their lives.

RAY MARTIN: Conjoined twins - did you have any idea what that meant?

JEFF GARRISON, FATHER: It didn't matter, you know.

DARLA GARRISON, MOTHER: We felt very honoured that they even thought we were worthy to take them.

RAY MARTIN: But, you knew - had you ever seen conjoined twins before?

DARLA GARRISON: No, no, not other than on TV.

RAY MARTIN: The triplets had been born to a drug-addicted woman in California, and she had abandoned them at birth. It's hard to believe that these lovely, effervescent girls were the babies that nobody wanted, except for Jeff and Darla.

DARLA GARRISON: I had to prove that we were, you know, worthy in that way, and so I was constantly feeling very insecure, and it lasted a long time, and I thought there's probably someone better.

RAY MARTIN: So, loving them wasn't enough?

DARLA GARRISON: No, no it wasn't enough. We knew we could do it, but we just weren't sure everybody else knew we could do it.

RAY MARTIN: Jeff and Darla Garrison already had three boys when the triplets arrived - Tyler, Mattie and Luke. So, overnight, it became three boys and three girls.

RAY MARTIN: Does it seem like a real-life Brady Bunch every night?

DARLA GARRISON: We sure have a lot of Brady Bunch references when we go somewhere - yeah, three girls, three boys.

RAY MARTIN: The good thing, too, is that all three girls look like you.

DARLA GARRISON: Yes.

JEFF GARRISON: Yeah, and then Darla gets compliments on how well she looks for having six kids!

DARLA GARRISON: And then I tell them I've only had three and say, "Well, how do I look now?"

RAY MARTIN: What do they say?

RAY MARTIN: What can they say?

DARLA GARRISON: What can they say?

RAY MARTIN: But it was always going to be tough making ends meet, financially. Jeff is a construction worker, and Darla works horses on their small farm. The Garrisons live in the American heartland, in corn-fed Iowa, amongst the red barns and the covered bridges of Madison County. This is God-fearing, John Wayne country, where Old Glory flies proudly. When Darla and Jeff first brought the girls home, the locals were understandably curious, and sometimes a bit too curious.

DARLA GARRISON: You can't just put conjoined twins in a stroller and go to Walmart. It's a fiasco. People are gathering, looking, talking.

JEFF GARRISON: We had to put a blanket over them, you know, to cover them up in a stroller, you know, so people wouldn't...

DARLA GARRISON: ..gawk.

RAY MARTIN: Early on, even the Garrison boys were a bit taken aback by their new sisters. LUKE GARRISON, BROTHER: I remember asking my mum if it was a two-headed baby.

RAY MARTIN: But you were only about six or seven, weren't you?

LUKE GARRISON: Yeah, I was six years old.

RAY MARTIN: Had you ever seen conjoined twins even on television?

LUKE GARRISON: I'd never even heard the word 'conjoined' before that.

RAY MARTIN: Conjoined twins remain a medical mystery, even to paediatric surgeon Dr James Stein, who's a professor at the prestigious Los Angeles Children's Hospital.

RAY MARTIN: And how rare or common are they?

DR JAMES STEIN: Probably about 1 in 250,000 births is about the incidence of conjoined twinning.

RAY MARTIN: How many cases though where you get triplets and two of those three are conjoined?

DR JAMES STEIN: I think we were able to identify really maybe one other case, so it's incredibly rare.

RAY MARTIN: Dr Stein led the 80-strong medical team, and they separated the twins in a complex, gruelling, 24-hour operation.

DR JAMES STEIN: What was interesting with Macey and Mackenzie, in terms of our planning processes, was that we took it all the way to the point of doing a run-through with stuffed dolls.

RAY MARTIN: Macey and Mackenzie were attached at the pelvis, facing each other - a rare join for such twins. They also shared a useless third leg, which bulged out of their tummy.

DR JAMES STEIN: It was non-functional, it was fused and, so, it did give us a nice buffer in the sense that it gave us a little bit of extra bone, a little bit of extra muscle, a little bit of extra skin.

RAY MARTIN: So the third leg gave you some spare parts?

DR JAMES STEIN: It was a spare tyre in the back trunk - exactly.

RAY MARTIN: After the brutal separation, the surgeons had to rebuild the girls' urinary and reproductive organs, which were twisted and intertwined. Incredibly, Dr Stein believes that they will be able to have children.

DR JAMES STEIN: I think all of us still look back at it as just an incredible experience for us. To watch the girls then go on and lead such normal lives is an amazing element to be able to see along with that.

RAY MARTIN: Now, just dressing the girls before they were separated was a challenge, and Grandma Judith came to the rescue.

RAY MARTIN: How did you feel when they were separated? JUDITH, GRANDMOTHER: Oh, yeah, okay - I'm going to choke up on this one. Um...

RAY MARTIN: Again, you'd grown used to seeing them together? JUDITH: Yeah, that was, like, the 'child'. Now it's the 'children'. It was like, "Oh, wow, there's two people," and they were in separate cribs, like, five feet away from one another and I'm going, "Wow! They did it! this is really great!"

RAY MARTIN: Did you feel sorry for the fact that they were separated? JUDITH: Oh, no, no way. I thought almost as if they're free. I was really happy for them because, you know, they're individuals, so they need to be separate.

RAY MARTIN: All that was seven years ago. Spend a few days with these little girls now and you forget that they even have a disability. They're quite fearless and almost unstoppable - anything that able-bodied Madeline can do, on or off the ground, they are determined to match.

MACKENZIE GARRISON: I want to play soccer.

RAY MARTIN: You want to play soccer?

MACEY GARRISON: She wants to play soccer this year.

RAY MARTIN: Well, tell me why you want to play soccer?

MACKENZIE GARRISON: Because soccer is fun.

RAY MARTIN: But can you play soccer with just one leg?

MACEY GARRISON: You run, you kick, and then you run, and you kick the ball, dribble it, and then you kick it through the hoop. Just like that.

RAY MARTIN: What about you, Madeline? Tell me what you think of these two sisters. Pretend they can't hear what you're saying.

MADELINE GARRISON: Um, annoying and crazy at the same time.

MACEY GARRISON: I heard that you said I'm annoying!

RAY MARTIN: And crazy.

MADELINE GARRISON: And also lots of fun.

RAY MARTIN: Madeline seems a bit like the independent, bigger sister, but it's sometimes been hard for her, with so much of a focus on Macey and Mackenzie.

DARLA GARRISON: She's actually made comments in the past about how she wished she only had one leg and she'll hop around on one leg, but that just her naivety. She's kind of jealous of the attention they got but, now that she's older, I think she realises that she's the lucky one.

RAY MARTIN: A new dawn brings a new school day for the Garrison kids. 18-year-old Tyler drives his pick-up, while the other five catch the bus in dribs and drabs, like every other family. Macey and Mackenzie, the separated twins, share the same teacher.

RAY MARTIN: So, how are they adjusting? LISA DOWSON, TEACHER: I think they seem to be adjusting just great. Everything we do in the classroom, they just fit in beautifully.

RAY MARTIN: Macy also needs a Special Ed class to catch up on her maths but, out in the playground, everyone else has to catch up with them. LISA DOWSON: Mobility is no problem. I was amazed when I watched them at recess last week jumping rope. So far, I have not found anything that they weren't able to do.

RAY MARTIN: Now, do the kids at school ever make fun of the fact that you only have one leg?

MACEY GARRISON: No!

MACKENZIE GARRISON: Some kids. One told me that - last year - that he was going to kick me and kick my crutches and then run away, and the other one told me that I have a robot leg and I didn't really care about that one.

RAY MARTIN: Macey and Mackenzie both have prosthetic legs. They get regular workouts with the school physiotherapist. But, right now, they prefer to bounce around on their crutches like supercharged pogo sticks. Marc McDonald is now designing their prosthetic legs for their later, teenage years - when they'll probably want to look and walk like every teenage other girl. MARC MCDONALD: Cosmetically, they're going to want another leg on the other side. They're going to want jeans to go all the way down and they're going to come to me and say, "I want to wear high heels," and I'm going to say, "Okay." I don't know how we're going to do it!

RAY MARTIN: So you've got to match their dreams, hey? MARC MCDONALD: Yeah, yeah. That's what my job is - I can do that the best I can.

RAY MARTIN: Judith, like every grandma, has grown-up dreams for her girls - dreams about love and about marriage. JUDITH: You know, they have that little handicap which will make any boy that has intentions of dating them, he will love them because they're not perfect. He will love them because of their wonderful, beautiful personality. I pray that they get married to a nice guy, have a lot of of kids.

RAY MARTIN: But, right now, they're just kids, happy watching their dad, Jeff, roping steers at the local rodeo. And what's lovely about being out with these girls is that they're quite oblivious to their own remarkable story. But if it hadn't been for Dr Stein and his medical miracle-workers, then things would be very different today.

DR JAMES STEIN: I think, you know, the separation of conjoined twins is something that you really do live with the rest of your life, and the pleasure I get out of doing it, knowing that two kids that were once - I won't say doomed - but certainly had a life that was going to be limited by the fact that they were together, are now riding around on bikes individually, running around the hospital, is an incredible thing to see.

RAY MARTIN: Remember, these three little girls - certainly the twins nobody wanted - had no future. They'd just been dumped. But the consummate medical skills and the unbridled love of a family who cared - a non-stop hyperactive family - has given them a new life and hope. Yet, Jeff and Darla believe that they are the fortunate ones.

DARLA GARRISON: How do you pass up that opportunity? Who gets called to take conjoined twins? Nobody. You don't pass that up. That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

MACKENZIE GARRISON: Okay, are we done?

RAY MARTIN: That's done, yeah. MACKENZIE &

MACEY GARRISON: Yes!

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