Solving the mystery of Arlena Twigg

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, October 3 1988

This is a most peculiar story. It has nothing to do with the Presidential election or the space shuttle or anything else. It does not even really tell you very much about America. It is just peculiar and rather sad.

It concerns a working couple from Pennsylvania, Ernest and Regina Twigg, who had a little girl, Arlena. The couple always knew that Arlena had a defect in her heart which might one day kill her and in August this year, after undergoing open-heart surgery, Arlena died, aged nine.

The couple’s sadness was, however, profoundly confused by a chance discovery which was made by the doctors who were treating her at a hospital in New Jersey. Performing routine blood tests, the doctors found that Arlena’s blood group was incompatible with the Twiggs’. In plain language, she could not be their daughter. Arlena was someone else’s child.

The discovery, which was confirmed by genetic tests at two different laboratories, set off an emotional earthquake in the Twiggs. They were torn between disbelief and anger at the revelation, and torn again between affection for the dying Arlena and panic about the whereabouts of their real daughter.

With the help of a lawyer, they set out to find the truth and have now exposed what they believe is a unique crime. Their family’s turmoil has become a public spectacle reminiscent of the furore over Baby M, the surrogate baby, or Lindy Chamberlain, the Australian whose child was stolen by a dingo.

Regina Twigg was 36 years old when she gave birth to a six pound eight ounce baby girl in the small hours of the morning on December 2 1978. Doctors at the hospital in Wauchula, southern Florida, where the Twiggs then lived, checked the new baby’s condition and gave her ten out of ten on the ‘Apgar scale’ which rates a new baby’s health. “Heart sounds of good quality,” the doctors noted. “No abnormalities.”

Forty eight hours later, Mrs Twigg was lying in her hospital bed waiting for her baby to be brought back from the nursery to be fed. As the nurse arrived with the child in her arms, Mrs Twigg was struck by its appearance. The baby looked thinner, possibly a little darker. “Gee,” she said. “This doesn’t look like the same baby.” The nurse told her not to be silly and pointed to the identity bracelet clipped firmly round the baby’s wrist. “Twigg,” it said, and she was reassured.

The next day, as Mrs Twigg was packing to leave the hospital, a senior doctor came to tell her that the child which had been so healthy at birth was in fact dangerously ill. The two ventricles of her heart were merged into one, and poisonous amounts of carbon dioxide were being pumped into her blood. On the hospital records, in the column marked ‘abnormalities’, someone scratched out the word ‘none’ and wrote ‘congenital heart disease’.

For nine years, the Twiggs, who have seven other children, worked to keep Arlena alive. They gave her digoxin, which rotted her teeth but made her heart beat stronger, and lasix to clear the fluid from her lungs. Doctors operated on the vessels around Arlena’s heart. “It was non-stop agony,” Regina Twigg recalled last week. “I’d get up in the morning and say `Dear God, let her live’.”

They noticed that her features were a little different from her brothers and sisters. She had grey eyes; they had brown ones. Her face came to more of a point at the chin. But it was nothing to worry about, and Mrs Twigg had forgotten her moment of doubt in the hospital. Anyway, they had enough to worry about with her health.

Earlier this year, heart specialists advised them that Arlena needed a major operation to restructure her heart from one side to the other. They said it should be done as soon as possible. In her concern for Arlena’s well-being, Mrs Twigg insisted that the doctors check the child’s blood group so that she could arrange for friends to donate blood without suffering any anxiety over whether it was tainted by AIDS.

The doubts came over them in waves. The doctors said Arlena was B positive. Mrs Twigg thought her birth records said something different. She checked; they said her daughter was O positive. Must be a mistake. Mrs Twigg went back to the doctors to query their test. They confirmed it and asked what blood group Mr and Mrs Twigg were. O postive and O negative. In that case, said the doctor, Arlena cannot be your child. It was then that Mrs Twigg remembered “Gee, this doesn’t seem like the same baby.”

The Twiggs could not accept a test tube breaking up their family. They went to Baltimore where John Hopkins Hospital runs some of the most sophisticated testing of genetic finger prints in the world. When the doctors there had finished their tests, they decided to arrange for a psychiatrist to be with them to break the news to Mr and Mrs Twigg. The results were unambiguous: neither of the Twiggs was related to Arlena.

In an interview with the Washington Post last week, Mrs Twigg recalled that moment. “It was like someone had punched me. It totally took my breath away. If I could have passed out, I would.” Piling one pain on another, Arlena went into the operation, recovered consciousness for 24 hours and then deteriorated rapidly and died.

The Twiggs grieved as if she had been their natural daughter and resolved to find out what had happened. Their inquiries steered the story into a new dimension when they concluded that they had been given someone else’s child not through negligence but through deliberate fraud. They believe that some parent, possibly a father acting without his wife’s knowledge, found that his new-born daughter had a deadly heart defect and decided to make a swap. They also believe they have identified their the family involved.

Working with a lawyer, Marvin Ellin, who specialises in medical malpractice, the Twiggs have laid out their evidence in a $100 million law suit against the Florida hospital where the child was born and against three doctors and a nurse there. It charges that the babies and their identity bracelets were deliberately switched and that some of the hospital records were re-written.

The law suit suggests that no doctor could conceivably have given ten out of ten on the Apgar scale to a child with Arlena’s heart defect. It also quotes the evidence of a nurse at the hospital who told Mrs Twigg that another child born at that time was, at one stage, going to be offered for adoption. Ellin is sure there was some kind of fraudulent conspiracy: “It is hard to resist facts and evidence which refute a kinder conclusion of negligence.”

Examining old hospital records, the Twiggs found that there were only three baby girls born in the hospital during the critical week. One was Mrs Twigg’s. One was Hispanic and was therefore ruled out. One was born to a family who now live in south west Florida. The Twiggs believe that it is this family which now has their real daughter. They say they have not decided whether they will ask for custody of her.

Reporters in Florida have traced the family and found that the mother died from cancer six years ago. They had no other children. The father, who appeared stunned by developments, has told his local paper: “I am an innocent by-stander. Until they get an indictment or a conviction, I have nothing to say.” He declined to allow the same genetic testing to be performed on his girl’s blood. “We don’t have to prove anything to the world,” he said. “We know who we are. She will never be their child.”

Last week, the FBI reviewed the facts and launched a kidnap inquiry, and 200 people gathered in a church in Pennsylvania in a memorial service to Arlena.


UPDATE: Nobody was ever prosecuted for kidnapping the Twiggs’ real daughter who had been named Kimberly by the Florida family who reared her. When the Twiggs traced her and went to court to obtain custody of her, Kimberly went to live with them for a couple of years but failed to bond and eventually left with some acrimony.