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CLEVELAND CLINIC



Published: Sat, September 8, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Getting throughmedical school iseasier when you have a twin to lean on.

By ASHLEY POWERS

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

CLEVELAND -- Ding!

The elevator doors part and two women rush through the hallways of the Cleveland Clinic.

All eyes are trained on them.

They stride in unison -- almost. One is slightly ahead of the other, white lab coat draped across her arm. Both occasionally check their watches -- silver, worn on their left wrists.

Then they turn around. It takes a second or two for the sight to sink in. The pair patiently awaits the expected reaction:

"God, you're dead ringers!" exclaims one woman, whose head turns right, then left, then right again to the identical dark eyes, round faces and blond ponytails.

Crystal and Tiffany Thomas smile politely, acting as if the questions are new to them:

UDid your mom dress you alike? (Yes.)

UDid you try to forge separate identities? (Not really.)

UCan you speak to each other telepathically? (Um, are you serious?)

Home life: Growing up on a Rootstown farm, the 21-year-old identical twins were the only Doublemint duo around. They were each other's best friends, collecting tadpoles and playing in their clubhouse with brother Jerry, now 20.

Their first real separation was two years of accelerated undergraduate work -- Crystal at Youngstown State University, Tiffany at the University of Akron.

They were reunited last academic year for four years of medical school at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine in Rootstown.

They still can't shake that "twin thing." Because their lives are mirror images in more than just looks, they're not really trying.

"You never even think about that, do you?" Crystal asks Tiffany. "That you're my twin, that you look like me?"

"Oh, no, you don't think like that," Tiffany replies, smirking.

The pair have never ventured into the halls of the Cleveland Clinic together before today -- mostly because they're swamped with research papers and data analysis, partly to avoid the double takes and confusion.

Mistaken identity: Tiffany recalls recently passing a man in a lab coat who said "Hi" -- to Crystal. Tiffany didn't bother explaining.

"Then I saw him earlier this week, and he was still calling me 'Crystal.' I was asking him some questions about charts, and he's like, 'These charts are going to Tiffany, whoever that is.'

"I'm like, 'Oh, I'm Tiffany.' He's like, 'What? I thought you were Crystal. I thought you were blowing me off, pretending like you didn't even know me.' "

These are the stories the two share at night in the elevator-sized room they share, tales that give the other a glimpse at life beyond pediatrics, their first interest.

Three days a week Tiffany scans patient charts; she's comparing the range of motion that hand surgery patients have after two different operations. Two days a week she's up close in the operating room, sometimes "scrubbing in" -- a chance to hold instruments as a doctor restructures a hand or jaw.

"It's really interesting to be able to see the inside of a person's arm, you know?" she says in all seriousness.

Crystal's evening contributions have centered on number crunching in a room resembling a walk-in closet. This summer, she's focusing on urology and sperm donor insemination programs. The information is hidden in charts that at times are piled two feet high.

Hard work: The most arduous tasks? "Just going through the charts, trying to find information you needed, oh -- and trying to read doctors' handwriting," she says, laughing.

The days are tiring. Crystal calls the unpaid clinic work a "40-hour volunteer job." Crystal uses the nights to study for her distance-learning class.

The pair drive back to Rootstown each weekend to visit their mother, Connie, a homemaker, and father, Jerry, a truck driver and part-time farmer.

To have someone go through it with you, to share the same achy feet, information overloads and sore eyes softens the experience, they say.

They have their distinctions -- taste in men, penchants for neatness. But they're in all of this -- medical school, young adulthood, life -- together.

Ding!

The pair leaves an elevator, venturing toward Crystal's work cubbyhole. Along the way, a doctor stops the two, fascinated with their resemblance.

"It would be interesting if you two are dressed the same," he says.

"Yeah, we'll have to try that," Crystal says good naturedly.

He then prods Tiffany to join her sister at a department luncheon, "so that people can see two Crystals."

The two exchange a knowing glance.

"Or two Tiffanys," Crystal's counterpart replies.




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