The Miracle of Birth
Back in 1990, Patty Hensel gave birth to twin daughters which came as a surprise since, despite her husband’s suspicions that there was more than one fetus inside, doctors assured her she was only expecting one baby. It seems that the two girls’ heads had been in alignment during the sonograms, so only one head was visible. When father-to-be, Mike, told doctors he heard two heartbeats, they dismissed his observations. Patty was scheduled to have a cesarean section as the fetus was not sitting correctly for a natural birth.
What should have been a time of celebration was overshadowed by the fact that the twin girls were joined together, and doctors doubted they would live for more than a few hours. While Patty was still sedated, she overheard nurses saying something about “Siamese” and asked them, “I had cats?” The doctor wasn’t particularly gracious about informing Mike either, simply saying, “They’ve got one body and two heads”. It’s a miracle that they survived the birth at all, as the odds are stacked against, with around 50% being stillborn.
That Abby and Brittany are special is unquestionable, but what is really unusual is that they have an extremely rare condition called dicephalic parapagus. This condition means the two girls share a body, but each has a head. In the case of Abby and Brittany, the girls also have separate organs so there are two hearts and four lungs packed into their upper body, but only one liver and three kidneys. Below the waist, they have just one set of shared organs. Stay tuned for more about these special twins
Abby and Brittany are believed to be one of just four sets of twins with this condition to survive beyond infancy. Learning to crawl and walk was particularly challenging as the girls share a nervous system, meaning they can only feel what’s happening on the side they control. In order to crawl, each twin was reliant on the other’s co-operation so they could move their arms and legs in a synchronized manner that would enable them to move forward. Things may have been different, however.
The Third Wheel
When the twins were born, they had a third arm between them, but doctors decided the girls had a better chance at life if it were removed. Although they went through several surgeries during their early years, the girls have been surprisingly healthy, managing to avoid many of the common ailments that afflict conjoined twins, such as respiratory issues and other problems relating to too much pressure on shared organs. The two girls are now healthy adults and enjoy an active, normal life pursuing their hobbies and a career.
Although the girls have adapted well to their shared body, it isn’t always easy. When eating, they have to alternate bites, with each twin helping to feed her sibling. Although they have separate mouths and stomachs, sharing one pair of arms has its short-comings. Strangely enough, if one of the girls is sick, it doesn’t necessarily mean the other is. This has been one of the most difficult challenges for Abby and Brittany and nearly lead to their separation. Read on for more details.
Til Death Do Us Part?
At one stage during their childhood, Brittany became incredibly ill with pneumonia. Abby was perfectly healthy but bedridden alongside her conjoined twin. In her frustration and boredom, Abby started to fantasize about getting separated but, at the mere mention of this possibility, Brittany would burst into tears. In the end, Abby promised they would stay together forever, a decision their parents supported wholeheartedly. Encouraged by their parents to develop individual personalities, the girls have blossomed into intelligent women with a love of life.
Two Heads Are Better
According to Abby and Brittany’s mom, Patty, when the young girls were asked why they had two heads, they would always respond in the same way, saying, “they don’t, but that each has their own head”. Despite considering separation in their younger years, Abby has no regrets about their decision to stay together, saying, “We never wish we were separated — because we would never be able to do all the things that we do now … like play softball, run and do sports”.
Stars at Six
Abby and Brittany’s tenacity and determination caught the media’s attention when they were still young children and the twins were invited to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996. Shortly afterward they appeared on the front cover of Time magazine. Since then, the world has been captivated by the pair and how they manage their unique existence together. When they turned sixteen, the girls participated in a documentary called Joined For Life, which followed their daily lives, showing how the girls met with the usual challenges of high school.
There was no pressure on either Abby or Brittany to appear in that documentary, nor the subsequent shows that have seen the girls growing up. According to Brittany, doing the series meant people “… can see a normal day-to-day life of who we are and what we do,” while Abby added, “It’s normal what we do – our life isn’t any different from yours”. Of course, that’s not entirely true – most of us don’t have another person to consider every time we make a decision.
Give and Take
Compromise is key to a happy life, especially for Abby and Brittany. While the pair agree on many things, they each have their individual style and preferences. The twins are also different heights, with Abby being several inches taller than her sister, meaning that Brittany stands and walks on tiptoe. Brittany’s also scared of heights, which don’t bother Abby at all, and, while Brittany’s heart rate increases after a cup of coffee too many, Abby’s remains unaffected. Keep reading to find out what other unique challenges these special twins face.
Going out in public isn’t always easy, especially if you look a little different from the norm, and the girls often face the problem of people staring or wanting to take unwelcome photographs. This seems to bother their friends more than it upsets the twins themselves and one close companion of theirs, Erin Junkans, says, “I want to make sure that they’re safe and that they’re not completely exposed”. Nevertheless, Junkans says, “…they amaze me at their ability to just shake it off”.
On the Right Path
The girls haven’t let anything stand in their way when it comes to pursuing a normal education and they have the same hopes and dreams as any other young woman. After finishing high school, the twins attended Bethel University where they graduated with flying colors, both passing their final exams to secure a Bachelor of Arts degree in education. Although they considered pursuing different subjects, in the end, they had to accept that the coursework would be too much, so agreed to follow the same path.
Their development into young, independent adults was depicted on the show Joined For Life, which followed the girls as they left home and moved into their own place together. Not long afterward, Abby and Brittany got their first job as teachers at a local school. According to the principal, Mr. Good, the twins had to prove themselves to win the job, competing against 175 other applicants. Mr. Good admits it hasn’t been the easiest journey for their human resources department, saying they entered “uncharted territory” when they employed the twins.
The Right Fit
But the girls have always had a way with children, according to their mom, who says, “…kids have always been kind of drawn to them.” While Patty admits that it may have started out as curiosity, “once their [the children’s] simple questions are answered they still are just drawn to Ab and Brit”. The twins have such a positive attitude to life and seemingly unwavering optimism, it’s no wonder children find them inspiring. Similarly, Mr. Good was in no doubt that he’d found the right people for the position.
Ones and Twos
Although Abby and Brittany each have their own degree and own teaching license, they were practical about the fact that they could only get one job, and therefore, only one pay cheque. The twins each have their own employment contract, but they split the salary for their part-time job. Having two people in the classroom has its advantages, however, as one can watch the pupils while the other is explaining a problem or answering questions. Abby and Brittany take multi-tasking to a whole new level.
Teaching from the Heart
After their interview for the position, the panel doing the interviewing was blown away by their dedication and maturity. According to Mr. Good, after the interview, he showed the girls out of the room and then, “I came back in the room and before I even sat back down one of the people said, ‘Run after them, hire them, give them the job.'” The pair excitedly explained that their part-time position meant, “we’ll be kind of transitioning into the teaching world.” Stay tuned for more about these special girls.
As teachers, Abby and Brittany are committed to being role models for the children, not only in the academic realm but also in terms of life in general. According to Mr. Good, “I don’t think there’s anything that they won’t try or something that they couldn’t be able to do if they really wanted to”. This is part of the reason he chose the twins for the position, saying, “To bring that to children, especially kids who might be struggling, that’s very special, that’s learned through lived example”.
Despite the success and capability Abby and Brittany have shown over the years, their mom still worries about them, just like any other parent. Patty says she was particularly concerned when they learned to drive, “I don’t know what would happen if they got pulled over for speeding. Would they each get a ticket or just Abby because it’s her foot on the accelerator?” she explained. Patty went on to say that, “Like every mum would hope for, you want them to be successful and to be happy and healthy…”.
After deciding to employ Abby and Brittany, the school then had to determine the best way to introduce the unique pair to their community. Concerned about the reactions they may get from both pupils and parents, the school sent out letters introducing the new teachers and then reintroduced them at an open house event. While this was considered the best way forward, Mr. Good wasn’t entirely in agreement, saying, “I think after anyone sits with these exceptional young women, I think any of their concerns will just vanish”.
Making a Difference
Abby and Brittany were undaunted by their new position at the school, however, and showed their usual zest for life about their new career. The twins spoke excitedly and in unison, saying, “I’m excited; I can’t wait!”. The girls have been teaching for several years now and their enthusiasm for their work remains as fresh as it was on the first day. They’ve been accepted by pupils, colleagues and parents alike, who can all see their dedication both inside and outside the classroom.
While the girls take each day as it comes, when TLC decided to make a series about them, there were some concerns. The TV station wanted to be sure the documentary came across in the right way, without exploiting its stars or turning them into some kind of freak show. Abby and Brittany didn’t see it that way, though, “This is the story of our normal, regular life,” they said. “Well, our normal conjoined life.” Still, TLC was reluctant to publicize the series too heavily, allowing only limited interviews.
Two for One
While Abby and Brittany accepted that they could only be paid for one job, they hope that will change in the future. Brittany hopes that “As maybe experience comes in we’d like to negotiate a little bit, considering we have two degrees and because we are able to give two different perspectives or teach in two different ways.” She went on to say, “One can be teaching, and one can be monitoring and answering questions”. It certainly sounds like the school’s getting a good deal.
Many people are curious about Abby and Brittany’s private lives, but they prefer to keep that side of things to themselves. Like anyone else, they hope to one day fall in love but being conjoined does make a romantic relationship a little more challenging. Nevertheless, the twins remain positive that in the future, they’ll find those special guys who’ll accept them and love them for who they are. Not so long ago, rumors were floating around that Brittany was engaged, but the twins say this was just “a dumb joke”.
Examples of other conjoined twins enjoying happy married life should fill Abby and Brittany with optimism. The famous Bunker twins, Chang and Eng, married two sisters back in 1843 and went on to have long and happy relationships. Over the course of their marriages, the two brothers fathered numerous children, with Chang having 10 and Eng 12. That’s certainly indicative that both brothers enjoyed a healthy sex life! Apparently, the father of their wives was only concerned about the marriages because the Bunkers were Asian, not because they were conjoined.
Another pair of conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton, struggled to get a marriage license but in 1941, Daisy managed to get her marriage to Harold Estep accepted as legal. Talking about privacy, Daisy explained that she and her sister, “…have found a way to live separate and private lives, but it’s almost impossible to convince other people of that”. While privacy is one of the subjects that outsiders often raise, for those, like Abby and Brittany, who have known no other life, it’s not such a big deal.
According to professor of medical humanities and bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Alice Domurat Dreger, who has studied conjoined twins in depth, conjoined twins may not have the same need for sexual or romantic partners as the rest of us. In an article, Dreger wrote that conjoined twins “…have described their condition as something like being attached to a soul mate. They may just not desperately need a third…”. Makes you wonder what Abby and Brittany make of that theory.
While many parents might have decided to separate the twins early on in their lives, for Abby and Brittany’s parents, this wasn’t an option. Although they knew that conjoined twins can experience ill health as they mature, Patty and Mike also felt that the twins were more likely to lead active and fulfilled lives joined and feared that separating would potentially damage their quality of living, or even result in the death of one of their beloved daughters. At 28 years old, Abby and Brittany are proving their parents right.
A Difference of Opinion
No matter how close siblings are, they never agree on everything, and the same is true for Abby and Brittany. While Abby is more outgoing than her sister, she doesn’t have Brittany’s odd sense of humor. According to Brittany, Abby is more of a “homebody” while she likes to go out and socialize with her friends. Even deciding what to wear can cause some pretty heated arguments but, at the end of the day, they have to depend on one another and reach a compromise.
While Brittany tends to opt for more neutral colors, Abby says, “I would rather have it be more fun and bright and colorful”. Expressing your individuality when you’re joined to your sibling can be challenging but Abby and Brittany have found ways around this problem. In addition to buying shirts with two different necklines, the twins also opt to wear different shoes or different colored leggings, so they can feel like their own person from time to time. Stay tuned for more fascinating facts.
The Write Way
Despite their differences, when Abby and Brittany sit down to answer emails from their many fans, they write as one person. The siblings are so in tune with one another that they don’t need to speak to know what each other are thinking, making it quicker and easier to write as one person, rather than trying to take it in turns. Still, the two girls have different strengths, with Brittany being more of the writer, while Abby excels at math.
Together but Separate
One of the biggest challenges for Abby and Brittany as they mature is that, when one of them might be tired and desperate to curl up in bed, the other may still be wide awake. Coordinating their schedules to make sure they’re both well-rested and well-fed can be tricky. Being individuals, the two girls don’t necessarily need the same amount of sleep and have different tastes when it comes to food. Another complication is that, if one of them gets a stomach bug, the other one feels the pain.
Despite leading active and healthy lives, the girls have had their own challenges. When they were 12 years old, Brittany’s spine stopped growing, meaning that Abby had to have an operation to stop her from growing any taller. They were admitted to the Gillette Children’s Speciality Healthcare center for a procedure that would correct their scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, and also expand their chest cavity to ensure they could both breathe normally. While mostly healthy, there are still concerns for the twins’ future.
Against the Odds
The fact that Abby and Brittany survived childbirth was one miracle, but that they’re still alive and well today is even more astonishing. While female conjoined twins have a much better survival rate as their male counterparts, very few survive past infancy. As they get older, so the risk of heart failure or other organ problems increases but the twins remain healthy. As one of only around 12 pairs of conjoined twins in the world, Abby and Brittany are even more remarkable because of their age.
Hope for the Future
In addition to everything they’ve achieved in their private and professional lives, by allowing cameras into their home, filming some of their most intimate moments, the twins have helped thousands of people gain a better understanding of what life is like for conjoined twins. And a better understanding means a more accepting future. Not only that, but they’re helping their students understand the importance of accepting people for who they are, rather than what they look like or what fashion statement they’re making, every single day.