Tapia Twins art exhibit brings together arts and medicine

Ariane Caday
Contributing Writer

The Tapia Twins exhibit at The Depot features sculptures, clothing and images related to the conjoined twins’ journey to separation. Photo by Ana Gonzalez.

 The VCU School of the Arts is currently presenting a new art exhibit highlighting the multi-disciplinary collaboration involved in the surgical separation of conjoined twins Maria and Teresa Tapia.

Several departments merged for the exhibition, including the doctors, faculty and students of the Children’s Hospital of Richmond, the VCU School of Medicine and the VCU School of the Arts. The exhibition opened on Sept. 5 at The Depot, located at 814 W. Broad St.

In 2010, the World Pediatric Project — an organization that links worldwide pediatric surgical, diagnostic, and preventative resources to critically ill children in developing countries — learned of the then-conjoined Tapia twins, at around the age of 19 months, and brought them to VCU for their initial evaluation.

The WPP presented their case to long-lasting hospital partner the Children’s Hospital of Richmond and WPP volunteer Surgeon David Lanning. Upon the hospital’s acceptance of the case, the WPP transported the twins and their mother to Richmond, Virginia.

 According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the occurrence of conjoined twins happens once every 200,000 live births. The overall survival rate is between 5-25 percent, and approximately 70 percent of all conjoined twins are girls. In the case of conjoined twins, a woman only produces a single egg, which does not fully separate after fertilization. The developing embryo begins to split into identical twins during the first few weeks after conception, but stops before the process is complete. The partially separated egg develops into a conjoined fetus.

 Maria and Teresa were born joined at the lower chest and abdomen, sharing a liver, pancreas, and portion of the small intestine. Because of the way the top portion of their small intestines were connected, Maria was not able to absorb the nutrition she needed and was about 20 percent smaller than Teresa. Also, nearly 88 percent of the liver’s blood flow was routed to Teresa. These complications only furthered the necessity of the operation.

The operation lasted more than 20 hours on Maria and 18.5 on Teresa, and was very successful. In several procedures that demanded the work of dozens of surgeons, nurses, and therapists, the liver, pancreas and other shared organ systems were divided, and the girls’ abdominal walls were reconstructed. According to the Washington Times, Lanning said he felt confident in the girls’ recovery following the procedure.

“(I expect) the girls to fully recover and grow up to be healthy, young independent girls,” Lanning said in a news conference.

The Washington Times reported the twins’ mother, Lisandra Sinatis, said she had always dreamed of seeing her daughters as separate and independent children.

“It was really my dream and thank god it came true,” Sinatis said through an interpreter.

Aside from the work performed by the Children’s Hospital of Richmond, VCU students from other departments contributed beyond the medical community with several innovations to help the twins on their journey.

These contributions include: students from the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising, as well as Professor Kristin Caskey, who created new outfits for the twins, Audrey Kane and Casey Trivelpiece, VCU occupational therapists who modified a car seat to accommodate the twins for comfortable vehicle travel, and Morgan Yacoe, 2011 graduate from the Department of Sculpture and Extended Media, who worked closely with VCU’s Department of Surgery, to create foam models of the twins’ bodies.

Morgan Yacoe worked with Jennifer Rhodes, M.D., on this aspect; together they fashioned silicone and foam models of the twins that Rhodes used to determine how much of the girls’ skin needed to be stretched to provide flaps to cover the surgical openings once they were separated.

Yacoe said the experience sent her along a new path in her art, as she expressed her desire to portray how sculpture can influence medicine and how medicine can influence sculpture.

“It’s creating objects so that surgeons can get a feel for surgical exploration through working on objects that are very similar to the body,” Yacoe said. “I really believe plastic surgeons are our sculptors and our artists.”

 Curator of the exhibit, Owen Duffy said the exhibit is about both art and science.

“While the exhibition emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary work, the exhibition is also about art and what it can do,” Duffy said.

Duffy said while he has curated an art exhibit before, “Tapia Twins” is the first he has worked with that brought artists and those in the medical field together for one project.

“The entire experience was absolutely amazing, especially the opening, because it was wonderful how it brought together people from the medical campus along with the School of Arts,” Duffy said. “Seeing them come together created great discussion that highlighted each person’s role and their time spent working on it.”

The exhibit features the complete process of the twins’ surgery.

“Everything was essential, especially when added up together, because it all became an important sum that contributed to the well being of successful surgery,” Duffy said. “The collaboration that occurred between Morgan Yacoe and Jennifer Rhodes was such an important starting point due to the generation of other works of art.”

Duffy said one of the important features of the exhibit is how art and medicine can work together to save lives.

“Morgan’s piece, ‘Conjoined’, drives home art and medicine and how they can work together in different ways,” Duffy said. “The sculpture really showed how art can provide a means to problem solve.”

Since the presentation of this exhibit, VCU has combined art and medicine in several projects. Examples include the school of nursing using faculty from art education to teach observation skills, the music department working with larynx specialists, and Theatre VCU employing actors to simulate as patients so medical students can practice skills such as observation, diagnosis and empathy.

“The connection between our schools of medicine and the arts and the medical center is ever evolving into a national model for this kind of collaboration,” said Joe Seipel, dean of the VCU School of the Arts.

 Today, the girls are normal healthy four year olds. Having returned back to their home country of the Dominican Republic, the twins are currently attending kindergarten. Maria and Teresa recently returned to the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, coordinated by the WPP, for check-ups. 

“Fortunately, they don’t need any medications at this point and we don’t anticipate any further surgery,” Lanning said. “Certainly they both had major surgery — particularly Maria had major reconstructive surgery — and we just like to make sure things are continuing  to heal up and do well and all the organs are functioning and so far everything looks fantastic.”

The “Tapia Twins” exhibition is currently open at The Depot and free to the public until Oct. 26.

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