With formerly conjoined twins Maria and Teresa Tapia and the rest of their family looking on, Dominican Republic president Leonel Fernandez Reyna presented pediatric surgeon David Lanning, M.D., with the country’s highest civilian honor for his efforts to separate the girls in a dramatic 22-hour surgery late last year.
During a ceremony at the National Palace in Santo Domingo, Lanning received the Order of Christopher Columbus rank of Knight, an honor usually reserved for Dominican citizens or military. Only a handful of non-civilian, foreign-born individuals have received the award since it was established in 1937. The Order is given for distinguished service to the Dominican Republic or for humanity and merit outstanding in the arts or sciences.
“This is a journey that began two years ago and it started right here with the doctors who cared for Maria and Teresa after they were born,” said Lanning, surgeon-in-chief at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University. “This is truly a wonderful honor, and I accept it on behalf of all those who helped to make the case a success.”
Maria and Teresa, who turned 2-years-old this month, captured the hearts of the Richmond region in November following their surgery. The girls were joined at the abdomen and shared several organs, including a liver. The delicate procedure involved specialists in anesthesiology, transplantation and reconstructive surgery and took months of planning. In the weeks following the separation, the girls underwent extensive physical therapy to learn to walk independently. The family returned to the Dominican Republic just before Christmas.
Before the ceremony, the girls smiled, squirmed and played like typical 2-year-olds.
“It was a joy to see them and to see them doing so well,” Lanning said. The surgical case was a partnership with World Pediatric Project, which arranged for the twins to come to Richmond for their initial evaluation and subsequent visits. WPP links pediatric specialists with critically ill children in developing countries.