Ghana has had it's second set of conjoined twins within twenty years awaiting separation. These twins are joined in the scalp. While we wait to see the outcome of that surgery, I implore you to join me as we journey into the lives of the world most famous conjoined twins whose decision not to separate has been termed as 'a medical miracle'
Conjoined twins also known as simen twins are a set of twins who have body part(s) joined (fused) together. The abnormality occur in-utero during the development of the foetus. Separation of such twins is largely successful if they don't share a major organ such as the brain, heart, kidney, lungs etc. Occuring at 1 in every 100,000 births, conjoined twins who share the same heart, lungs or brain do not survive beyond the age of one year.
But we have a rare scenario where an American conjoined twins who share a lung have survived for thirty years and counting without separation. I present to you the lives, struggles and triumph of Abby Hensel and Brittany Hensel, the famous 'two in one sisters'.
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One fateful day in March
Brittany and Abby were born on March 7, 1990, in Minnesota. While their parents were excited about the new additions to their family, they were also worried and concerned. The two twins were conjoined. An incredibly rare phenomenon, doctors have two theories as to how it occurs.
Most doctors believe in the fission theory — where a fertilized egg partially splits in utero. The other theory involves the fusion of two eggs through stem cells searching for similar cells, which results in conjoining the two twins. Sometimes, the two twins can be surgically separated, but in the case of Brittany and Abby, this would have been incredibly dangerous.
A very special case
Brittany and Abby are what is known as dicephalic parapagus twins — twins that are joined at the body, with their two heads positioned side by side. Sadly, most twins with this condition don’t make it to birth.
Fortunately for Abby and Brittany, their organs worked perfectly and they were able to overcome incredible odds. Even after their miraculous birth, doctors feared they wouldn’t live long. Luckily, the twins proved them wrong.
The family was not expecting twins
Approximately 70% of conjoined twins are female — 40% to 60% of whom don’t make it to birth. During prenatal evaluation, doctors typically analyze how the twins are conjoined and which organs they share. If conjoined twins do not share any major organs, it makes separation surgery much easier.
In general, if conjoined twins share a heart or if their brains are connected, they cannot be separated.
In the case of Brittany and Abby, their parents were unaware they were having twins until they were born! According to doctors, the twins’ heads must have been perfectly aligned during each sonogram, giving the appearance that there was only one baby.
A difficult decision
The twins’ parents, Patti and Mike, had a tough choice to make. Do they risk the dangerous surgery, or let it be and hope for the best? They elected to do the latter. Fortunately, they made the right choice.
Because of the nature of Brittany and Abby’s case, separation would be especially complicated — dicephalic parapagus twins are usually only separated when one of the twins is terminally ill.
A medical miracle
Depending on sources, conjoined twins range from appearing once in every 50,000 births to once in 100,000 births. Out of these births, only 11% are dicephalic parapagus twins. The Hensel twins amazed doctors and researchers.
When they were born, the twins actually had three arms, but one had to be surgically removed.
Soon their fame would spread outside of the medical world and into popular culture.
A fascinating situation
Brittany and Abby are separated at the waist. They have two arms and legs, three lungs, two hearts, and two stomachs. Because they have two brains, each twin controls one side of the body, and can only feel sensations on their respective side.
This makes basic tasks we take for granted very impressive. Think about the coordination it must take for Brittany and Abby just to walk or ride a bike!
Since each twin controls one side of their shared body, walking takes a considerable amount of coordination. Because Abby and Brittany’s legs are slightly different lengths, the way they walk is slightly different. Abby is more flat-footed while Brittany walks more on her toes.
As a result of their different gaits, the Hensel twins appear to limp slightly when they walk, and it has caused Brittany to have a more muscular calf muscle.
Sickness and proposed separation
Even though the twins share many of the same organs, sometimes one of them will get sick while the other displays no symptoms. Once, while the twins were young children, Brittany came down with a nasty case of pneumonia.
The illness forced the girls to be bedridden, even though Abby was perfectly fine. Abby even tried to take the medicine when her sister was too sick to eat or drink. In her frustration, Abby exclaimed that she wanted to be separated, though she quickly changed her mind and apologized to Brittany. This marked the last time the Hensel family considered the dangerous surgery.
Oprah introduced them to the world
In 1996, Brittany and Abby appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, when they were 6 years old. Just months after the episode aired, they were on the cover of Life magazine, in a feature article called “One Body, Two Souls.
People were enthralled. The world wanted to learn more about these amazing twins. Seven years later, they’d get their wish — the documentary Joined for Life brought the general public into their world, as cameras followed them around for an entire year. In 2003, Life magazine updated their story to show what their lives were like at 11 years old.
Their parents had a unique experience as well
People often refer to parenting as the most difficult job in the world. Brittany and Abby’s mom and dad had to stress independence to the two twins, encouraging them to take up different hobbies and interests.
Disciplining the Hensel twins presents its own challenges — is it fair to punish them both when one of them makes a mistake? Despite these difficulties, the Hensel twins grew up to be well-adjusted adults.
The girls are athletic
As young children, Brittany and Abby struggled to learn to walk. But once they learned, they quickly learned to run and ride a bike. The twins are competitive in several different sports such as bowling, cycling, swimming, and volleyball.
According to their teammates, Brittany and Abby exceeded many people’s expectations. The girls refused any special treatment, relying solely on their work ethic and perseverance.
Learning to drive
A 2006 TLC special, Joined for Life: Abby and Brittany Turn 16, showed the world how the twins dealt with life as teenagers. For many teens, learning to drive is an important rite of passage and milestone to reach. For Abby and Brittany, the task presented some specific challenges.
Because each twin operates separate limbs, they each had to take the driver’s license test individually and receive separate licenses. Abby operates the foot pedals, while Brittany operates the turn signal. The twins share control of the steering wheel.
Even though their special medical condition intrigued the public, Brittany and Abby are defined by much more. Because kids that are different are sometimes bullied into isolation, Patti and Mike feared their girls would become shy and antisocial. Fortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Abby and Brittany are extroverted and enjoy having a large group of friends — something that is plainly obvious from their show on TLC. They’re also willing to interact with the public, responding to letters and emails from their fans.
They get along well despite some differences
You’d think that being permanently attached to someone would make anyone irritable toward their twin, but Brittany and Abby have had no choice but to adapt. According to their mom, Brittany is a little more soft-spoken than Abby, though she enjoys going out more than her sister.
Abby is more of a homebody, though she’s more extroverted and likes to take control of situations. Despite their differences in personalities, the two rarely argue with each other.
Brittany and Abby each have their own stomach. Because of this, they have different appetites and occasionally become hungry at different times. This proves challenging at times and the two have to work together to make compromises.
When they eat, each girl gets her own plate, and they trade between fork and knife, each taking turns eating until both have finished their food.
One of the ways people choose to express their individuality is in the way they dress. Abby and Brittany are no exception, but their situation requires them to compromise and agree on a particular style when they go out.
Their shirts have to be specially made to accommodate two necks and wider shoulders. To express their independence, the twins will often figure out a way to style themselves slightly differently. Occasionally, they will wear separate styles of pant legs and even different shoes on each foot.
Teamwork helped them in school
Brittany and Abby learned early on that they’d have to work together if they wanted to accomplish their individual goals. Both excelled in school, though they preferred different subjects. Abby loves math while Brittany is a natural writer.
While attending Bethel University, Brittany and Abby had another difficult decision to make. What classes would they take since they both wanted to major in different subjects?
Ultimately, they decided taking different collegiate routes would be too difficult, and they decided to compromise on a subject they both loved. In 2012 they received separate bachelor’s degrees in education.
While Brittany and Abby’s parents encouraged their individualism growing up, the pair shares some impressive talents — one of which is their skills on the piano. Abby handles the high notes, while Brittany plays the lower register.
After years of practice, they’ve developed an incredible level of coordination that enables them to play beautifully.
They love to travel
Shortly after graduating college, Brittany and Abby decided they wanted to see the world. The twins and some friends packed their bags and went on a trip to Europe. Predictably, air travel presents some challenges for the girls. On the bright side, they only had to purchase one plane ticket.
Leaving the country was also a learning experience. The twins had to learn to deal with large crowds and occasional rude interactions with locals and other tourists. Brittany and Abby refuse to let some uncomfortable exchanges spoil their fun.
People can be cruel
Despite opening their lives up to the public on many occasions, the twins live relatively private and normal lives. They’ve expressed annoyance at being stared at and photographed in public without their permission
In fact, part of the reason they agreed to share so much of their lives with the public is that they hope that answering questions would satisfy people’s curiosity and enable them to lead normal social lives.
Following their dreams
Brittany and Abby worried that pursuing a career would prove difficult for them. But the twins’ determination led them to success, just as it helps them overcome practically every other obstacle in their lives.
Brittany and Abby currently work as fifth-grade teachers at a school district in Minnesota. On the first day of class, the Hensel twins have an open forum where kids can ask any questions they may have. This helps them clear the air so they can focus on schoolwork for the rest of the year.
They nailed the job interview
Mr. Good, the school’s principal, said that Brittany and Abby aced their job interview. According to him, they left him little choice but to hire them. “After the interview I ushered them out to the front door and I came back into the room,” he explained. “Before I even sat down one of the people said, ‘Run after them, hire them, give them the job.’”
Their math expertise as well as their enthusiasm helped land them the job out of 175 candidates that applied for the position. “I think after anyone sits with them, any concerns will vanish,” Mr. Good added.
Two teachers, one job
Despite having two different degrees and teaching credentials, their medical condition only enables them to work one job. This means they can only take home one paycheck — something that Brittany and Abby hope to remedy in the near future.
The twins believe their unique condition enables them to teach children to be tolerant and accepting as well as the basic scholastic curriculum. Their mother Patti agrees. “They’ve just always had a knack with kids,” she said.
Rumors of romance
In 2010, a rumor that Brittany had gotten engaged was spread on the internet. The rumor proved to be false after the twins dismissed it as a “dumb joke.” But the public’s curiosity was sparked — did the twins ever see marriage in their future?
Indeed, both Abby and Brittany dream of meeting the right guy(s) one day, getting married, and even having children. But as for now, they’re content just to focus on their career and hobbies.
They enjoy their privacy
Since Abby and Brittany: Joined for Life ended in 2012, the Hensel twins haven’t made many public appearances. Perhaps they feel that after sharing so much with the public, they’d prefer to live their lives in private.
It’s understandable that after having dealt with cameras following them around for so long and having to answer lots of private questions, they’d rather be left alone to focus on their teaching job.
Credit: Barry Whitmore