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My identical twin and I needed open heart surgery on the same day. Doctors had to color-code us to tell us apart.

Kelly Burch   

My identical twin and I needed open heart surgery on the same day. Doctors had to color-code us to tell us apart.
  • Identical twins Pablo and Julio Delcid, 21, have Marfan syndrome, a rare genetic disease.
  • After their mom was rushed into emergency surgery, doctors told the men they needed surgery too.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Pablo Delcid. It has been edited for length and clarity.

One Sunday evening last October, I was wrapping up at my job as an auto technician when I received an emergency call from my mother's work. My mom was having chest tightness and crying out in pain. An ambulance rushed her to the emergency room, and I followed as quickly as I could.

When I got to the hospital, my identical twin, Julio, was already there. We had no idea what was going on. Around 7 p.m. — about two hours after we arrived — doctors explained our mother had an aortic dissection, a tear in the body's largest artery. She was rushed into emergency surgery, which lasted until 4 a.m.

That night, Julio and I were just worried about whether our mother would make it. She's a single mom, and we still live with her. She's our world. We didn't realize then that her experience would directly impact our health and set us up for major surgery.

We both had aneurysms but were taking a wait-and-see approach

We grew up knowing that Marfan syndrome runs in our family, and we were diagnosed with the condition when we were seven. Marfan syndrome is a genetic condition that affects the connective tissues in the body. This causes lots of symptoms, including cardiac ailments. Our older brother isn't impacted by the disease, but our two older sisters both had life-threatening medical emergencies with their aortas, just like our mom.

Doctors knew that we both had an aneurysm, or swelling, in our aortas. We had been seeing the cardiologist every six months since 2010, and they monitored the aneurysms. If the swelling reached a certain size, we would need surgeries. We knew they could burst at any time, which would be life-threatening. At each appointment, our surgeons explained both emergency and non-emergency surgical options.

In high school, we couldn't play many sports or do intensive activities, which could increase the risk of the aneurysm rupturing. We played slow-paced, leisurely games of basketball, but spent lots of time just exploring the city we lived in New Jersey.

After watching our mom's emergency surgery, we knew we didn't want that

A week after my mom's surgery, her surgeon at Atlantic Health System's Morristown Medical Center asked to speak with me and Julio. He was worried that we might be at high risk for an aortic dissection like the one she had experienced at any time, so he referred us to his colleague, Dr. Benjamin van Boxtel, who happens to be a father of twins.

Dr. Boxtel ordered CAT scans and MRIs to examine our aneurysms. Both had grown, and were big enough to require surgery. He explained that if we did the surgery before it was an emergency, he would be able to keep more of our tissue, rather than a prosthesis for the aortic valve. That meant we'd have more normal lives, and not need blood thinners permanently.

Watching our mom go through emergency surgery was terrible. We didn't want to risk that for ourselves, each other, or our family. We decided, with our doctor's blessing, to do the surgery on the same day. We didn't want just one of us to go through it — if we were going to do it, we decided to do it together.

During one appointment, doctors asked who was born first. I told them I was, and they replied that I would have surgery first. On the day of the surgeries, I was taken into the operating room, and Julio got updates as he prepared for his operation. Five hours later, I came out of surgery and Julio went in. My first question to the nurse was, "Where's my brother?"

We're recovering from surgeries and looking forward to being more active

The surgeries were a success, and we spent a week in the hospital in rooms near each other. Because we're twins, everything was color-coded, so the hospital staff didn't mix us up. The day after surgery we were walking, which I had not been expecting. Julio was discharged a week after surgery, and I went home a day later because I had a minor complication with fluid in my lungs.

Having the aneurysms repaired was very emotional. We'll have to work closely with our doctors to monitor Marfan syndrome throughout our lives — the condition can cause symptoms ranging from headaches and eye issues to an irregular heartbeat. But Dr. Boxtel explained that the most dangerous, possibly deadly complication was behind us.

We don't have the possibility of disaster hanging over us anymore, and now we have a normal life expectancy and quality of life. After seeing our sisters and mother go through emergency surgery, just waking up each day and seeing the sunshine is a blessing.

We're still working to regain our strength, and become even stronger than we were before surgery. With the aneurysms repaired, we'll be able to hike, lift weights, and be more active than we were before. We want other people, especially in the Latino community, to know that it's important to take control of your health.

Having a twin brother can be annoying at times. But there's nothing like knowing that there's someone who looks just like you, and who has also been through exactly what you've been through. We're beyond grateful to have each other.

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