By Michael Friscolanti
The twin girls were lying side by side on a wooden change table, close enough that one tiny head touched the other. Together, as always. Their dark eyes, oblivious to the moment, glanced around the room while two workers from the orphanage picked out some baby clothes and slid them on. For Binh, a pink and white dress with flowers all around. For Phuoc, a yellow top with thin, green trim. “Please come on in,” one woman said, as a camera filmed the scene. “There they are.” On the verge of tears, Johanne Wagner covered her mouth as she glimpsed her new daughters for the first time. Michael, her soldier husband, leaned over and kissed her temple. His expression could not have been more blank. “I had that look on my face that I was looking for another exit,” he says now, after seeing the video so many times. “ ‘Am I sure I am in the right place?’ ” He was. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Nov. 3, 2012. For 10 months, the Wagners had waited for that Saturday morning introduction—with eyes wide open. They understood that the twins they chose to adopt from the other side of the globe were gravely ill and severely malnourished, the diagnosis not yet clear. They’d seen photos of the girls’ toothpick legs and jaundiced skin. And they knew their weight (barely four kilograms each) came nowhere close to matching their age (18 months). But no amount of research, no stack of pictures, could have fully prepared them for that first encounter. “I was devastated,” Johanne recalls, sitting at her kitchen table in Kingston, Ont. “I remember thinking: ‘Wow.’ They were smaller than my newborn babies.” “They looked polluted,” Michael says. “It was overwhelming. I didn’t realize how sick these young girls were.” Johanne reached for Binh and pecked her cheek. Michael picked up Phuoc and cradled her in his arms, staring at her fragile face as the camera zoomed in. “Everything will be fine,” said Johanne, rubbing Binh’s tummy. “I promise you, everything will be fine.” In truth, the Wagners feared the worst. Later that afternoon, they walked through a Vietnamese market and purchased two cup-sized containers: both red and black, painted with dragonflies. “To lay their ashes in,” Johanne says. “We thought that’s where it was heading. All they might need is to hold our hand and have known the love of a family for a short while. If that’s all we can give them, that’s what we were going to give them.” Today, those would-be urns are on display in the Wagners’ living room, a constant reminder of what should have been—if not for the sheer will of one unique, fiercely determined family, and the breathtaking generosity of so many selfless strangers. What happened instead, two years later, triggered headlines around the world: identical twin sisters desperate for liver transplants, and an adoptive father whose organ, a perfect match, could save only one. An “unspeakable dilemma,” one article proclaimed. “Impossible choice,” said another. Agonizing. Heartbreaking. Some news reports went so far as to compare the Wagners’ predicament to the Oscar-winning film Sophie’s Choice, in which Meryl Streep’s character is forced to decide which of her two children would be gassed by the Nazis. The reality was not quite so dramatic. From the moment the twins landed on the transplant list last December, their parents were tenacious about spreading the word, hoping a grassroots social media campaign would compel potential donors to come forward. In the meantime, Michael put his own name in the hat—and when doctors confirmed he fit the criteria, the Wagners were ecstatic, not devastated. One liver down, one to go. “We knew from the beginning that the two of them would not receive [a transplant] at the same time,” Johanne says. “We never, ever had to make a choice, and I want people to understand that we didn’t pick—and we never felt we had to pick.” That decision was left to the experts at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. And in the end, the choice was quite obvious: Phuoc (pronounced Phook, like hook) was clearly the sister in more dire need. (Even their parents were not surprised by the selection. “I always suspected Phuoc was going to go first because she was more symptomatic,” Johanne says. “She was more miserable, more burdened. I was kind of relieved.”) But the Wagners’ story, heart-wrenching all the same, went absolutely viral. Journalists from New York to Sydney to Paris reported on the couple’s relentless pursuit of a second donor, with emphasis on their apparently impossible choice. In a matter of days, the world was introduced to not only the twins and their tireless parents, but to the seven other Wagner children: five biological and two others adopted from Vietnam, for a total of nine. A “beautiful rainbow family,” as Johanne describes them. “I thought my phone was going to kill itself,” Michael says. “Both my wife and I said: ‘We’ve got to ride this while we can.’ I think at one point each of us was doing four interviews a day.” Binh still needed a healthy liver, after all, and any publicity is good publicity. Their strategy worked, better than anyone could have imagined. Moved by the girls’ plight, nearly 600 strangers came forward, offering to donate a portion of their livers to save the second twin. The volunteers emerged from everywhere. British Columbia. New Zealand. Brazil. Wyoming. “I’ve never seen a response like this,” says Dr. Gary Levy, director of the living-donor liver program at Toronto General Hospital UHN, which works in tandem with SickKids. “One person I spoke to said: ‘I refuse to take no for an answer, and if you don’t accept my candidacy I’m going to come to Toronto and picket in front of your hospital.’ ” For Binh, the unprecedented response ensured she would receive the same precious gift as her sister: a future. In fact, doctors had the rare luxury of sifting through the wave of applicants and assembling an A-list of four prime candidates—a list that was recently narrowed down to one, when nurses wheeled Binh into surgery for a transplant that would unleash yet another round of headlines. But in a story that has tugged at countless hearts, the most inspiring twist is the one that continues to unfold far away from the media’s glare. Of those 600 potential donors, nearly 50 have passed the initial screening tests—and some have told Levy they are willing to help any patient stuck on the liver waiting list. Two of those anonymous volunteers have already gone under the knife, saving two Canadian children whose names and faces never made the news. All because of Binh and Phuoc, two sick, tiny orphans who don’t yet realize the astronomical odds they’ve overcome. Or the huge difference they’ve made.
An early photo from the Wagners' Facebook page. The twins have Alagille syndrome, a genetic disorder
When Binh and Phuoc were added to the transplant list in December, their parents launched a Facebook page,hoping to compel potential live liver donors to come forward.
The Wagners' "beautiful rainbow family" of nine children
Binh (in green) and Phuoc were quite ill when the Wagners first brought them back to Canada
Watch as Johanne and Michael Wagner meet their twin daughters for the first time
In the years before their surgery, the twins received nutritional supplements
Listen to Dr. Levy discuss the people who donate: "They want to save a life"
Johanne Wagner talks about the family's so-called impossible choiceWhatever the spin, the story’s impact was tangible. Potential live donors must submit a 12-page health history downloaded from Toronto General’s website, and the questionnaires started flooding in—by the hundreds. For privacy reasons, the hospital is adamant about protecting the identity of its anonymous applicants, even from recipients. But their generous hearts touched even Levy, a man who has met so many inspirational people throughout the years. One volunteer offered to fly in from B.C. Another from Buenos Aires. One is a paramedic working in Ontario. “He said his business is saving lives,” Levy says. “He has two young children, and he said he goes to bed every night and he thanks God for the fact that his children are healthy. He just couldn’t live with himself if this child dies.”
The first transplant: Watch as Michael and Phuoc Wagner undergo surgery
Phuoc and Johanne Wagner before Phuoc's liver transplant
Watch as Michael Wagner talks about Phuoc's transformation
While Phuoc and Michael were in the hospital in Toronto, Binh and Johanne were home in Kingston
Binh is comforted by Johanne as she waits for her surgery
Back home: Phuoc, post-surgery, and Binh
Phuoc (left), after surgery, back home playing with Binh
Watch the Wagners tell of Phuoc's homecoming
Phuoc with her parents after Binh's liver transplant was made public
Binh is recovering from her transplant
After Binh's transplant, Phuoc (left) greets her at Ronald McDonald House
Writer: Michael Friscolanti Editor: Dianna Symonds Designer and developer: Amanda Shendruk Photographers: Cole Garside and Christopher Wahl Videographers: Cole Garside and David Zelikovitz Video editor: David Zelikovitz Photo editors: Natalie Castellino and Liz Sullivan