Surgeon known for separating conjoined twins was early coronavirus victim

Danielle Renwick

When Clarence and Carl Aguirre were born conjoined at the head, physicians in their native Philippines told their mother, Arlene Aguirre, that only one child could survive.

“The doctors at home told me, ‘You have to choose which one is to live,’” Aguirre told CBS News in 2014. “I said, ‘I cannot choose that.’”

Aguirre and her sons flew to New York to meet with Dr James Goodrich, a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon. Over the course of four grueling surgeries that spanned 2003 and 2004, Goodrich led a team that attempted to separate the boys, whose brains were fused and who shared major veins.

Aguirre wrote that Goodrich gave her the “greatest gift of seeing my boys separated and giving them whole new lives”.

Goodrich himself, however, died in March at age 73, an early US victim of coronavirus. He was best known for separating conjoined twins – a rare and risky procedure – and was directly involved in about 10 cases, advising on dozens more. At the time of his infection, he was continuing to see patients at New York’s Montefiore medical center, where he had worked for more than 30 years.

Dr Gregory Heuer, a pediatric neurosurgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said Goodrich helped lay the foundation for how surgeons operate on twins conjoined at the skull. “He took it from one odd case that people tried to work on and brought some science to it,” he said. By carefully documenting cases and explaining his methodology, Goodrich helped lay the foundation for the next generation of neurosurgeons.

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Among neurosurgeons, Goodrich was also well known for his innovations regarding conditions affecting the skull. He helped to develop standards for treating craniosynostosis, a relatively common condition in which the bones of a child’s skull fuse too soon, preventing the brain from growing properly. “Before 40 years ago, no one did this surgery, and if they did, they did it poorly,” Heuer said. Today, he said, with successful treatment, many children with the condition can make full recoveries.

Goodrich had a soothing bedside manner, said Kamilah Dowling, a nurse practitioner who worked with him for years. “Many people, upon first meeting him, would say his presence was so calming that they knew it was the right decision to leave their child in his hands,” she said.

When Goodrich wasn’t performing surgery, he was an avid collector – of antique medical books, pre-Columbian medical artifacts, rare watches and fine wines, among other things. He surfed, cultivated bonsai trees and played the didgeridoo.

Goodrich and his wife, Judy, met shortly after he returned from Vietnam, where he served in the marines. Goodrich had gotten poor grades in high school and only began his undergraduate studies at age 24.

Married for 50 years, the Goodriches never had children, in part because Goodrich’s medical training extended into his 40s, Judy said, but he found deep fulfillment working in pediatrics.

“He was totally taken by wanting to help children who had facial abnormalities or deformities [by] making their lives better,” she said. He often stayed in touch with patients and their families years after surgery.

Goodrich also embraced the role of mentor. “I could call at any time with any problem, and he always had an experienced opinion to help me with,” said Paul Kanev, a pediatric neurosurgeon with Connecticut children’s medical center, who trained under Goodrich.

Kanev said Goodrich defied the brain-surgeon stereotype. “Many neurosurgeons take themselves very seriously. Their entire life and identity is consumed by the field,” he said. “Jim was just the opposite. He was a recognized expert in all kinds of other areas.”

Goodrich had seen patients in the clinic in early March, just before flying to Mexico for a family vacation. He soon began to feel ill, and when he returned to New York, he was diagnosed with Covid-19. He was hospitalized on 25 March and died five days later.

The hospital organized an online vigil for Goodrich that lasted two hours and drew participants from around the world. Former patients and their families shared their grief on social media. Aguirre, whose sons turned 18 in April, posted a photo taken of Goodrich and her sons. Her family had remained in the US after the surgeries, settling near Goodrich.

“I am devastated, sad and very angry,” she wrote. “We lost the greatest person in our lives because of the damn virus.”