The home is the heart of a family, a place where love grows through the simple pleasure of time spent together. A place where memories are made, and first steps are taken.
For Mary and Sam Ayeni and their three daughters, Marvelous, Miracle and Testimony, a home together was elusive. When Marvelous was a toddler, Mary became pregnant with conjoined twins. The girls, who were diagnosed as conjoined in utero, shared a large intestine, two bladders and a pelvis.
“Once Miracle and Testimony were born, they never left the hospital in Nigeria,” says Le Bonheur Pediatrician Emilee Dobish, MD. “They were never living in the same place as a family.”
All that changed when, through the Nigerian-based Linking Hands Foundation, the Ayeni family came to Memphis and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in June 2016 when the twins were 8 months old. During the next four months, a team of specialists from the areas of anesthesia, child life, critical care, pediatric surgery, orthopedics, nursing, plastic surgery, radiology, rehabilitation therapy, social work, spiritual care and urology would meet weekly to plan the complicated surgery.
While they were meeting, the Ayenis worked to find their footing as a family in Memphis. Six thousand miles away from their home in Nigeria, Mary, Sam and their daughters experienced living together as a family of five for the first time at FedExFamilyHouse.
At 12 months old, the twins finally underwent the daunting 18-hour surgery to separate them. The medical team consisted of more than 20 surgeons and physicians, and more than 100 nurses and clinicians. The surgery was Le Bonheur’s second separation of conjoined twins in the past five years.
For Mary and Sam, their strong faith has sustained them through the entire process. Mary prayed to God to “just lead us to where you want. And He brought us here to where His Heart is, because I believe the heart of God is here.”
The Ayenis even joined a local church and found friends through their faith community and in the volunteers and staff at the hospital and FedExFamilyHouse.
Susan Graf, the driving force behind FedExFamilyHouse, and her husband Alan, FedEx executive vice president and CFO, are like surrogate grandparents to the children. Susan has a special connection to big sister Marvelous, 3. Susan was also the sibling of a child who had long-term hospital needs.
“We just bonded. She’s the cutest thing. I was the sibling, not the child going through the surgery. But it affects the whole family,” said Susan. “You think about her short life so far, this is what she’ll remember. I know she’ll remember this.”
The twins were released from the hospital in early 2017, and now live with their big sister and parents in FedExFamilyHouse – their home base as they undergo rehabilitation and physical therapy.
“Because of the kitchen, Mary has been able to make food for her girls, for them to try solid food for the first time,” says Dobish. “They are able to sleep in two separate beds … they have sat up, for the first time, as two separate people.”
At FedExFamilyHouse – their home for the last year – the Ayeni family is finally together, making memories, watching their daughters grow and take their first steps, all while surrounded by the love of family and their new friends.
“I give glory to God because He used FedExFamilyHouse, He used Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and all the beautiful people around us to save the lives of Miracle and Testimony,” Mary said.