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We don't know how to tell Gracie her sister died so she could live; EXCLUSIVE DILEMMA FACING TWINS' PARENTS DAILY Mirror BEST FOR REAL LIFE.

Byline: By VANESSA ALLEN

SHE is known to everyone on her home island as the little girl who always smiles.

The only time six-year-old Gracie Attard's grin fades is when she visits the grave of the twin sister who died so that she could live.

This happy little girl, from Gozo in the Mediterranean, was given the chance of life by doctors who battled to save her by separating her from her conjoined twin Rosie.

It was an operation the twins' Maltese parents did not want and British judges had to step in to save Gracie's life when she was only a few weeks old.

Her parents know that they owe their beautiful daughter's life to that decision, but now they face an agonising choice of their own.

They must decide when to tell Gracie the truth about how she was born sharing her heart and lungs with her conjoined twin and how tiny Rosie died just minutes after they were separated.

Gracie, who at the time of her operation was called "Jodie" by her family, knows only that she had a sister who died and she loves to take flowers and pray by her grave.

She asks the twin she never knew to watch over her, pray for her and to tell God she has been a good girl.

But she knows nothing of the horrendous decision which doctors and judges made in Britain to separate her from her twin so that she alone would survive.

Understandably, the girls' parents, Michaelangelo and Rina, cannot find the words to tell Gracie the awful truth about how she was given her chance at life. Rina, 41, tells the Mirror: "I want to tell her the right way, so she understands, but I don't know how I will do it.

"Probably I will say that they were joined but that something was wrong, that something went wrong and it was just nature.

"There was something wrong with nature and that's how it happened.

"I want to tell her the truth and be honest with her, but at the moment she is still so young. She only knows that she had a sister who died.

"We have tried to make life as normal as possible for her and to treat her as a normal girl."

Gracie does indeed live as a normal girl and no one watching her running, dancing and playing with her younger sister would know of the Appeal Court drama that saved her life.

Rina, a former hotel maid and factory worker, discovered in February 2000 that she was pregnant with conjoined twins and was ordered to travel to Britain to give birth.

She was told before the birth that the girls would not both survive because they only had one functioning heart and set of lungs between them.

But she and her husband Michaelangelo, a 51-year-old plasterer, were absolutely horrified by the thought of an operation to separate their girls.

The couple, who had led an ordinary, simple life together on Gozo, were suddenly confronted with a life and death decision about their daughters' fate and they insisted that the operation should not go ahead.

The world's media thought they had made their decision based on their Catholic faith, which told them that all life was sacred, and that any surgery which would kill one twin was wrong.

But Rina said her decision was really down to her fears that the surviving twin, Gracie, would be left so physically handicapped that she would suffer for the rest of her life.

Rina says: "It wasn't that I didn't want to save Gracie's life - I wanted my girls to live - but I didn't know what kind of life she would have.

"It was before I had even given birth to the twins. I was pregnant and terrified. I thought I was doing it for the best. I was scared. I had heard stories that one girl would live but would spend her life in a wheelchair and suffer deformities. That is why I didn't want the operation.

"I thought it was better that they were left as they were, but I was wrong."

Rina gave birth by Caesarean section on August 8, 2000 and says that at first she could hardly bring herself to look at her tiny daughters.

"I thought I would see something horrible. I thought that they were not normal," she explains.

"When I first saw them I fainted. I was afraid of them. In the beginning I did not want to touch them. It took days before I actually did."

Within days of the birth, doctors at St Mary's Hospital in Manchester were adamant they had to operate to separate the girls if either was to survive.

Tiny Rosie stood no hope of life without her stronger sister but unless the separation went ahead Gracie would also die from heart failure.

The twins were sharing Gracie's heart and lungs because Rosie's could not function properly and she had signs of serious brain damage.

But the parents - still reeling from shock - were determined that nature should be left to take its course, however cruel.

The case was rushed into the High Court and then the Appeal Court.

A panel of judges finally ruled the operation should go ahead and on November 7 doctors began the 20-hour surgery to separate them.

Within minutes of the final cut being made to separate their blood supply, Rosie died. Her parents were told immediately and were heartbroken.

But, as they wept, doctors were already working to give Gracie her best possible chance of survival.

They fractured and reconstructed her pelvis so that her legs were positioned in front of her body instead of at her sides.

And they also rebuilt her internal organs so successfully she has not needed further surgery.

Her love of dancing and playing is now the greatest possible sign of the success of their work and she has far exceeded the hopes of the surgeons and her parents.

Rina says: "The doctors are very pleased with Gracie - she is growing and they say she will be able to have children of her own one day which we thought she might not be able to have.

"I never thought she would be so healthy. We didn't even think she would be able to walk.

"We didn't dream to expect so much. I'm just so thankful that she's walking, running and that she's not sitting in a wheelchair or suffering terribly."

Four years ago, the Attards' prayers were answered again when Rina gave birth to another baby girl. They had no hesitation in naming her Rosie, after Gracie's twin.

The girls laugh and play together all day, although Rina and Michaelangelo are determined that they should not forget their other sister. The family regularly visit the cemetery where the first Rosie was buried and encourage Gracie to pray to her twin sister.

Rina says: "When we go to visit Rosie's grave at the cemetery we always say a prayer.

"We ask Rosie to watch over Gracie and she asks her to tell God she will be a good girl.

"We always used to pray for a younger sister for Gracie and now she has that.

"It makes me so happy to see them playing together, almost like she would have done with her twin if they had both lived.

"Gracie says she wants to be a teacher and she likes to pretend that she's a teacher taking a class.

"She will hand out books and speak like she's teaching and sometimes she will shout at her sister like she's a real teacher. But I try to take it one week after the other. You just never know what will happen."

The couple still receive birthday cards for Gracie from staff at St Mary's Hospital and get visits from people asking to see "the special baby".

And now they are planning her seventh birthday in August and want to give her a big pinboard where she can display her drawings and special schoolwork.

By British standards it is a small present but they know their daughter will be thrilled by the chance to show off her pictures.

And they hope that one day they will be able to show her photographs of Gracie and her twin together and explain what happened when she was just a few weeks old.

I thought it was better that they were left as they were.. I was wrong

mirrornews@mirror.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

HAPPY FAMILY: Gracie, top, with mum, dad and sister; DRAMA: At the time Gracie was called "Jodie"; Survivor Gracie at her sister's grave and, inset, with her parents after her operation
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 9, 2007
Words:1450
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