In January, Nancy Swabb saw a Facebook photo of a 9-month-old girl named Dominique and felt an immediate connection.
"That photo really captured my heart," Swabb told CNN. "She looked so sweet."
The image was shared by Children's Medical Mission West, a nonprofit that helps transport children around the world to receive free medical care for rare conditions, and showed baby Dominique sitting on her mother's lap.
The post was a call for help in the Parkridge, Illinois, area — Dominique, who lives in Cote d'Ivoire with her family, needed to a host family to stay with while she received medical care from the nearby Advocate Children's Hospital (ACH). After a thorough vetting process, Swabb and her husband Tim were approved to foster Dominique.
It wouldn't be an easy job: Dominique was having surgery to remove a parasitic twin, an underdeveloped baby that fused with Dominique in the womb. The parasitic twin's waist, legs, and feet were growing out of Dominique's back, along with a second spine connected to her own. Because the twin was entirely dependent on Dominique's body — her heart and lungs were working overtime to support both bodies, and the extra appendages would cause deformities — surgery was the only chance Dominique had at living a long, healthy life.
After only a few weeks of preparation, Dominique arrived in Illinois on February 5 and was greeted not only by the Swabb family — Nancy, Tom, and their daughters Lena, 15, and Mara, 9 — but by many of the neighbors in the Swabb's Edgebrook, Illinois, community, as well.
A Life-Changing Procedure
Though Dominique's surgery was scheduled for March 8, she spent hours ahead of time in the hospital undergoing tests in preparation; her parasitic twin had to be analyzed through an MRI, MRA, CAT scan, X-rays, and CT myelogram to see how it was connected to Dominique.
On the day of the surgery, John Ruge, MD, medical director of pediatric neurosurgery at ACH, led a team of five surgeons and more than 50 physicians of various specialties through the delicate process of separating Dominique and the parasitic twin. It took a total of six hours, but they were able to remove the twin in one piece, freeing Dominique of two pounds.
The successful surgery also had a speedy recovery time — Dominique was sitting up the following day, and was able to go home with the Swabb family in just five days. She has swelling that will reduce over time and a bump on her back from an abnormal bone stabilizing her spinal column, but Dominique is expected to have a full recovery without any complications or need for follow-up surgeries.
Dominique still has two spines — their fusion was too complex to separate — but her doctors don't believe it will have any damaging effects.
"She has slightly more risk because she is built slightly more different than other children," Dr. Ruge said, "but she looks great... we're pleased with how she's doing."
Bonded for Life
The Swabb family will foster Dominique until mid-April, when she will be medically evaluated and cleared to reunite with her birth family in Cote d'Ivoire. Until then, the Swabbs are able to communicate with Dominique's family via Children's Medical Missions West, which translates photos and updates into French. Those updates have included Dominique's first two teeth, her first time eating solid food, and the first time she's slept through the night.
Even though Nancy never met Dominique's birth family, she already feels an intense bond, and hopes the two families can meet someday.
"To give love for a certain amount of time and have a connection with a family you've never met is so amazing," Swabb said. "I can't wait for her parents to see her."