Only little by little did Gracie Attard learn the story of her twin Rosie, the sister who’d died shortly after their birth. There was no sudden revelation, just a drip-feed of information; a slow-dawning realisation.
‘Mum and Dad used to take me to the cemetery where Rosie is buried and tell me: “She’s your sister, and you were twins.” Actually, they said we were joined together,’ she says. ‘Later I heard them use the word “conjoined”. I didn’t know what it meant, and when I was about seven I got my first dictionary and looked it up.
‘Then I felt confused, but I said to Mum: “I know what it is now,” although I still didn’t really understand.
"A year or so later, I looked on the internet and found out that our story was a big one that went round the world. I didn’t think about that. I just wanted to know exactly what happened.
‘I read the stories and it felt as if I was reading a book about someone else. I didn’t exactly feel detached, but I wasn’t really involved either. It all happened so long ago, when I was a tiny baby.’
Gracie is 14 now, and a livewire. Shrewd, funny and voluble, she loves to cycle and swim. She is determined to become a doctor and has strongly held opinions on most things.
But for a few intensely fraught weeks after her birth in a Manchester hospital on August 8, 2000, her very existence was the subject of an ethical debate that gripped the world.
Gracie was born a Siamese twin, joined to her sister Rosie, end to end, at the abdomen and spine. They shared an aorta, a bladder and circulatory systems. Their tiny legs were splayed at right angles from their shared trunk.
Yet while Gracie was robust, Rosie was weak and ailing. In fact, Rosie was only alive because of Gracie. It was Gracie’s healthy heart that was pumping blood into her sibling. In effect, Gracie was her twin’s life support system.
What should be done? Opinion was polarised. Doctors believed unless the girls were separated, within months both would die. Yet separating them would kill Rosie. So should her life be sacrificed to save Gracie?
For Michael and Rina Attard, the twins’ parents, the dilemma was heartbreaking. Both devout Catholics, they had never considered aborting the twins when scans revealed they were conjoined. They could not, therefore, bring themselves to allow one to die to save the other.
So they resolved to leave their girls conjoined. ‘We decided it was better to put their future in God’s hands,’ says Rina.
But they were over-ruled by the judiciary. Three Appeal Court judges decreed the twins should be separated. At this point the Attards decided to fight no further. Rosie duly died, three months, six hours after the complex 20-hour surgery to separate them, at St Mary’s Hospital on November 7, 2000.