Alex and Angel Mendoza have lived in the hospital their entire lives.
They were born as conjoined twins last August in Phoenix, connected from their chests to their hips.
In January, doctors at Phoenix Children’s Hospital separated the boys in a complicated daylong surgery.
They were untangled and cut apart until they were two individual children, but they remained very sick.
This week, Angel will leave the hospital for the first time. Alex will follow in less than a month.
Mike Rokovich has been their nurse at Phoenix Children’s neonatal intensive-care unit since the week they were born.
“It’s a wonderful thing that they are going to be out of here,” Rokovich said. “That’s what we’ve been waiting for: happy, healthy babies.”
And, for the most part, they are healthy. Their hearts and lungs are strong. They have engaging personalities and should lead long lives.
“They are both coming along really well,” said Dr. Stuart Lacey, who led the surgical team that separated the boys.
But they will face challenges.
The boys will have years of continued treatment and rehabilitation because of problems with their hips, pelvises and urinary tracts.
Immediately after the surgery, Angel had kidney problems, but his kidneys are now considered strong.
Alex needs more time in the hospital, in part, because Lacey is using cultured skin to help close some of the baby’s wounds from the separation surgery.
Cultured skin is grown in a laboratory and combines the patient’s skin cells with animal products to create skin grafts.
Both boys are eating on their own but still require supplemental nutrition through a tube.
Despite all that, the boys’ doctors and nurses are amazed at how far they have come.
“They are doing great,” said Deb Green, manager of the neonatal ICU. “It is remarkable. They are very strong little boys.”
This has been the goal for Ashley Frank, the boys’ mother, since she first learned last year at her doctor’s office in Kingman that she was having conjoined twins.
Because Ashley has two other young children, and because the boys will still need a lot of medical care, Angel will go to a medical-foster home when he is released.
That home is just like any other foster home, except the foster parents have the training to help a child who needs special care.
Alex will join him there when he leaves the hospital.
Keeping the boys together is a paramount concern for the doctors and nurses who have cared for them since they were born.
“They do better when they are together,” Lacey said. “They always have.”
First, they shared a womb. Then, they shared a body. Even after they were separated, they were kept close to each other as they recovered from surgery.
“I almost cried the first day I was able to put them in the same bed together (after the surgery),” Rokovich said. “They were very curious. Alex kind of looked at Angel, like, ‘Where have you been?’ ”