BEST OF 2021 | These conjoined sisters were given days to live – now they’ve started crèche against all odds

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Conjoined twins Ndeye and Marieme Ndiaye are thriving after their father, Ibrahima, moved heaven and earth to get them specialised medical treatment. (PHOTO: JUSTGIVING)
Conjoined twins Ndeye and Marieme Ndiaye are thriving after their father, Ibrahima, moved heaven and earth to get them specialised medical treatment. (PHOTO: JUSTGIVING)

The twins have had a full day at nursery school, making clay animals using cookie cutters and playing with their friends, when their dad arrives to fetch them, pushing a double stroller for the walk home. “I don’t want to go home,” Ndeye Ndiaye announces.

Ndeye and her twin sister, Marieme, are clearly having a blast. Teachers at their crèche in Cardiff, Wales, say the four-year-olds are fast making friends, learning and laughing a lot.

The story of the sisters, who’ve now started school, is a powerful testament to their father’s love. When Ndeye and Marieme were born, doctors said they only had days to live. But their dad, Ibrahima, was determined to do everything in his power to give them a shot at survival.

The girls were born in Senegal, attached at the abdomen and sharing several organs. One of their arms is joined between them and they have only one pair of legs. Ibrahima (now 50) and his wife wanted to know everything about their condition, but local doctors said there was nothing they could do. The desperate dad then reached out to doctors around the world. 

He was relieved when medical staff at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital agreed to help. Ibrahima gave up his high-profile job in tourism and moved to the UK with the girls when they were just eight months old. 

His wife, whose name hasn’t been made public, initially joined them but eventually returned to Senegal to take care of the rest of the family.

In London Ndeye and Marieme received medical treatment at the children’s hospital where specialists suggested surgery to separate them. But the operation was risky, they warned. Because Marieme’s heart was weaker, she was unlikely to survive. Ibrahima wrestled with the decision. Should he give his permission for the surgery knowing she could die?

In the end, he declined the operation because he couldn’t bear the idea of losing one daughter, even if it meant offering the other the chance of a more normal life. It’s a decision he doesn’t regret. Recently doctors discovered the girls are more closely linked than previously thought and they depend on each other to survive.

Had they gone ahead with the surgery, not only would Marieme have died but her sister’s health would’ve been severely compromised.

The twins were born in Senegal where doctors gave
The twins were born in Senegal where doctors gave them only days to live. After moving to the UK, surgery to separate them was planned, but Ibrahima decided against it as Marieme would likely not have survived. (PHOTO: JUSTGIVING)

Though there’s now no chance of being separated, Ndeye and Marieme are thriving. “My girls continue to grow and bring me so much joy,” Ibrahima says. “Their speaking is coming along, and they can move with greater independence.”

Ibrahima and his second wife were overjoyed to discover they were expecting. He already had four kids from his first marriage and was excited to grow his family. But their happiness turned to shock when the twins were delivered conjoined. Doctors in Senegal, who have little experience of treating conjoined twins, told the parents their babies had no chance of surviving.

“They said, ‘Don’t put too much hope in the girls, it’s just a matter of weeks,’ ” Ibrahima recalls. But he refused to give up on his daughters. “When I got in touch with Great Ormond Street Hospital, it was the first time I heard, ‘You can come so we can see what we can do,’ ” he says.

Ibrahima sought help from a charitable foundation run by Senegal’s first lady, Marieme Faye Sall, to help get him and the twins to the UK. She’d heard of their plight and said she’d help in any way she could. Ibrahima named Marieme after the first lady because she helped get them to the UK. There, he applied for asylum and moved into a flat with the girls, where he continues to care for them.

"In this situation you don’t use your brain, you follow your heart."
Ibrahima Ndiaye

The doting dad has been at their side through every medical test, appointment and checkup. His dedication to his daughters has been captured in a BBC documentary titled The Conjoined Twins: An Impossible Decision. In the documentary, Ibrahima tells of his anguish when surgeons at Great Ormond Street suggested surgery to separate the girls. The medical team, led by Professor Paolo De Coppi, patiently explained the process, he recalls.

“Paulo told me we couldn’t do the separation without losing Marieme. The light, the hope, the expectation – all of a sudden it just vanished.” Ibrahima was shattered. Having bathed, fed and cared for them on his own over the past few years, he simply couldn’t choose to save one child over the other. “It was a difficult moment,” he told the documentary filmmakers. “In this situation you don’t use your brain, you follow your heart.”

Turns out it was the best decision. Ndeye and Marieme have separate hearts and lungs and three kidneys, but share a liver, bladder and digestive system. In October last year, doctors found their circulatory systems are more closely linked than previously thought – making separation impossible.

Together the twins are stronger, Ibrahima was told. “They’re linked internally and this explains why they’ve exceeded all expectations,” he says. “They’re working together to keep themselves and each other alive and the situation is a little more optimistic.”

Despite their rocky start to life, the twins are going from strength to strength. Although Ndeye and Marieme have conditions that put them at higher risk of complications if they catch Covid-19, their father enrolled them in nursery school – nurseries have remained open in the UK despite the lockdown – because he wanted them to learn social skills. 

“They’re growing and developing and laughing a lot, and that’s always a good sign,” says their teacher Helen Borley. Staff at the nursery school describe the girls as bright pupils with bubbly personalities. Despite the fact they’re conjoined, Ndeye and Marieme have their own set of friends. “The children either say, ‘I’m Marieme’s friend’ or ‘I’m Ndeye’s friend’. They don’t say, ‘I’m the twins’ friend’,” Borley says. “Children very much identify as being one person’s friend because the girls are very different characters.”

The girls have now started school and are learning
The girls have now started school and are learning and making friends. (PHOTO: JUSTGIVING)

For the twins, school is scheduled around hospital visits. They’re now being taught to stand with the use of a special frame at a children’s hospice.

At first they were afraid. “It’s a really different sensation when you’re used to sitting down – to be upright can be scary,” says physiotherapist Sara Wade-West, who’s been helping the girls build strength in their legs with the frame. “Because of their cardiac function we can’t push them too much so it’s about finding that balance between challenging them to get stronger but not exhausting them,” she adds.

With the help of physiotherapy, Wade-West hopes the twins will be strong enough to walk one day.

Their father is in awe of how far his daughters have come and can’t wait to see what the future holds.

“When you look in the rearview mirror, it was an unachievable dream. They’re my warriors. They’ve proved they’ll never surrender without fighting,” Ibrahima says proudly.

“From now, everything ahead will be a bonus to me. My heart and soul are shouting out loud, ‘Come on! Go on, girls! Surprise me more!’ ”


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