These Conjoined Twins Are Defying All Odds And We Are Loving It
Who Are Brittany & Abby?
Born on March 7th, 1990, in Carver County, Minnesota, Abigail Loraine Hensel and Brittany Lee Hensel are one of the rare cases of conjoined twins that survived birth and managed to live a somewhat normal life. They were born to parents Patty, a registered nurse, and Mike Hensel, a carpenter and landscaper and were raised in New Germany, Minnesota together with their two younger siblings, a brother and a sister.
Despite all the struggles, their parents tried to provide their little girls with everything all the other kids had and experienced, maybe even more. They attended Mayer Lutheran High School in Mayer and they even graduated from college. The twins have also become media personalities, appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show and TV documentaries Joined for Life and Joined at Birth and they also featured on the cover of Life magazine under the caption “One Body, Two Souls”.
Moreover, the girls starred in their own reality show Abby & Brittany that premiered in August 2012. All this media coverage put a lot of pressure on the girls and sometimes caused unwanted attention, but it did help us understand what life looks like for conjoined twins and it raised awareness about this rare, yet serious condition. And if it hadn’t been for all that media attention, we wouldn’t have even heard about these two wonderful young ladies. And trust us – their life story is worth reading! Let’s start from the beginning…
Before Brittany and Abby were born, Patty and Mike hadn’t known that they were expecting conjoined twins. Nothing about Patty’s ultrasounds suggested the problem. The pregnancy went rather smoothly and without any issues. However, during one sonogram, Mike thought he had heard two heartbeats but his observation was soon dismissed. The expecting parents were very excited about meeting their first-born and never in the wildest dreams did they imagine what was going to happen.
At the time of the delivery, Mike wasn’t in the room. When he later found out that he had become a father of conjoined twins, he wasn’t exactly happy about the way he was given the news. “They said, ‘They’ve got one body and two heads,'” he said for Time magazine. What Patty remembers about her birthing experience is that the word “Siamese” was mentioned in the delivery room which even made her ask if she had given birth to cats.
When the new parents asked the ob-gyn how he hadn’t seen the two heads during the ultrasounds, he said that the twins’ heads must have been perfectly aligned, giving the appearance that the fetus had only one head instead of two. Neither the parents nor the doctors knew what was going to happen with the girls but the prognosis was not promising.
The first 24 hours after the birth were very critical and the doctors were rather pessimistic about the Hensel girls surviving their first night. The chance of living past the first 24 hours was one in thirty million. However, their parents did not doubt for a second that their little girls would make it. And they were right. The Hensel girls are believed to be one out of four cases of dicephalus twins in history to survive infancy.
What Are Conjoined Twins?
Conjoined twins are formed when a woman produces one egg which doesn’t fully separate after fertilization. Namely, identical twins are formed when a fertilized egg separates into two embryos during the first few weeks of pregnancy. In the Hensel’s case, the egg separation process started but it did not finish, leaving a partially divided egg. That is why the girls have one body but two heads. This phenomenon occurs once in every 200,000 live births and the survival rate is between 5 and 25 percent.
One Body, Two Souls
Abby and Brittany are dicephalic parapagus twins, popularly called two-headed babies. Although they were not even expected to survive, they grew up into two amazing, high-spirited, and optimistic young ladies. Despite all the struggles and hardships life as conjoined twins brings, the two managed to preserve their own identities and live a somewhat normal life, thanks to their parents’ unconditional love and support.
Although they share a body, they don’t share all the organs. For instance, Abby and Brittany have 2 pairs of lungs, two spines, three kidneys, and two separate hearts in a fully-shared circulatory system. In the lower part of the body, they share all the organs including a reproductive system and a bladder. Moreover, they were born with a third arm which was surgically removed during infancy.
Among all the health issues their doctors discussed with Patty and Mike about, the idea of separation was mentioned a few times. However, the girls’ parents never actually gave that suggestion too much thought. The risks that surgery could bear were too great and the possibility that it could handicap or even kill the twins dissuaded them from the idea.
After the initial shock and when the idea of having conjoined twins sank in, their parents went above and beyond to make their little girls happy and to nurture their individuality and integrity. Needless to say, Brittany and Abby needed a lot of love, support, and help while growing up. Their body is a complicated system they needed to learn how to use and they sure needed a lot of time to get hold of it. Even crawling was a complicated task for them to achieve.
The twin’s parents wanted Brittany and Abby to feel normal and to live a normal life as much as their condition allowed them to. They attended a regular school, they had friends, enrolled in sports at school, played with other kids and everything seemed normal. Except it wasn’t. The girls had and they still have major health issues but they are learning how to live with them and to cherish how special and unique they are.
The first time the world came to know the twins, Brittany and Abby, was in the mid-nineties, long before their reality show appeared on TV in 2012. Namely, they appeared twice on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996 which was their first public appearance and it made them and their story famous. After that, the Life Magazine article “The Hensel’s Summer” came out, featuring a photo of the twins and gave them the spotlight they needed to share their story.
Although the girls enjoyed being recognized by the public, sometimes it was rather overwhelming. Not only did being famous cause people to stare and take photos, but it also made things worse. The attention gave them the opportunity to raise their voice and the awareness about their condition, but people were not always very considerate about it and they were sometimes rather rude and insensitive.
After filming several documentaries, such as Joined for Life, Joined at Birth, and Joined for Life: Abby & Brittany turn 16, and appearing in the UK series Extraordinary People the following year, the twin girls started their own TV show Abby & Brittany on TLC. The show premiered on August 28th, 2012 featuring 8 episodes that tell the story about their childhood, adolescence, school, social life, graduation, and traveling.
The Abby & Brittany show follows the two girls during their traveling through Europe, college graduation, birthday parties, summer breaks, and finally during job hunting. Their popularity went through the roof and the girls became the symbol of perseverance, courage, and strength. Watching the two of them could really put things into perspective and show us that even though life keeps giving us lemons, we can still make perfect lemonade.
Growing up, kids take so many things for granted, like walking, running, climbing, jumping or doing sports. All kids do it and it is not a big deal. However, for the Hensel girls, all these tasks represented important milestones they had to reach. Walking for them meant moving in perfect unison which wasn’t easy since their muscles were developed differently. Namely, Abby has a flat walking gait while Brittany tends to walk on her toes, making it seem they limp.
Behind The Wheel
An ordinary task such as driving becomes truly extraordinary when it comes to Hensel twins. They share one set of legs and one set of arms so they have to work together all the time in order to perform the simplest tasks everybody else is taking for granted. When they turned 16, they wanted to learn how to drive. And like everything else they were set on doing, they passed the driving test with flying colors.
When they were asked about their driving skills, they said in perfect unison: “I think we’re good drivers.” When they drive, Abby is typically in control of the gas and the brakes, Brittany is in charge of the blinkers, while they both have to steer the wheel. They both took the driving test and they have two separate driving licenses.
Deciding What to Eat
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if your meals depended on somebody else’s appetite and taste? Unimaginable, right? Well, that is how Brittany and Abby live every day. They both need to sit for a meal and agree on what they want to eat. One of the twins would be in charge of the fork while the other would hold the knife and they would take turns in taking bites. Talk about compromise!
Playing the Piano
Apart from all the hard work and effort they put in their everyday tasks, Brittany and Abby have always been really talented at music. They acquired amazing piano skills, which is just one of the numerous talents these two phenomenal ladies have. When they play the piano, Abby plays the right-hand parts while Brittany is in charge of the left-hand parts. What amazing coordination they must have!
Going The Extra Mile
After graduating from high school in 2008, the twin girls were not ready to give up education. They had always been excellent students and they were ready for a new challenge. The girls were ready for the college experience. Brittany and Abby enrolled at Bethnal University in 2008, choosing a major in education. Despite the exhausting college schedules and demanding courses, the two had an unshakeable faith in their success!
Initially, Brittany and Abby considered choosing different college majors but that would put even greater pressure on their already complicated lives since they obviously could not separate. Both girls have always wanted to be teachers, so they eventually opted for the major in education. After working incredibly hard and pushing their limits, the girls graduated from college in 2012, obtaining two separate diplomas in education.
Although it might seem they had it easy, studying was quite a strain for the girls. They had their own individual preferences, strengths, and weaknesses so the learning process was all about the compromise. Brittany was better at writing while Abby was interested in math. However, they helped each other overcome the difficulties and achieve success.
During the course of their education, Brittany and Abby were forced to read, study, and write together. The girls developed their own perfect little system and it worked well for them. For instance, when they wrote essays or emails, they would type text without uttering a single word to each other. However, they claim they cannot read each other’s minds. Imagine how cool that would be!
These conjoined twins, Brittany and Abby, seem to share only a body. Their preferences, tastes, and personalities are completely different. Their parents worked very hard to instill a sense of individuality and they also taught them it was OK to be different. Abby is said to be more vocal, loud and bossy. She is the “ruler of the house”. On the other hand, Brittany is a bit shy, laid back and chill in addition to having a weird sense of humor.
Despite having utterly different personalities, Brittany and Abby say they never argue. The twins have learned how to coexist and compromise, which eventually makes all the day-to-day tasks easier and more bearable. Being together all the time is a true blessing for these two girls and they never wish to be apart. Except when one of them is grounded!
Just like they have different personalities and food preferences, they like to dress differently. Brittany and Abby have completely opposite fashion styles. It wasn’t easy for them to deal with that while growing up but with time, they learned how they can emphasize their own fashion sense and express their individuality wearing different clothes, shoes, jewelry, and accessories.
Namely, the twin girls wear special custom-made tops with different necklines and sleeves, as well as pants with separate colored legs. Moreover, they sometimes wear different shoes on their respective foot. Although it was hard at the beginning, they’ve learned how to embrace their differences and to respect them. After all, they are two people in one body and they deserve to be able to preserve their respective personalities. And we applaud them for it
The Idea of The Separation
Abby has always been the sickly one, often having to be bed bound. That meant Brittany had to be with her even though she was perfectly healthy. When Abby caught pneumonia, it left both twins bed-ridden. It was at that moment that Brittany came up with the idea of the separation. When Abby heard that, it hurt her very much and left her in tears. Seeing how much the idea devastated her sister, Brittany has never mentioned the idea again and promised they would forever stay together.
The separation of conjoined twins is still an extremely rare operation with a low success rate. Namely, only half of the conjoined twins survive the separation. That is due to the fact that they share organs and most of them cannot survive independently. In the case of the Hensel conjoined twins, the girls share some of the major organs, making the surgery extremely risky. For the Hensel family, the benefits of the separation were not worth the risk.
The organ system of conjoined twins is rather complicated and sometimes not even they can grasp the way it functions. Depending on the organs they share, conjoined twins develop different forms of dependency. Brittany and Abby, as all conjoined twins, share a bloodstream which means when one of them gets a shot, both of them are immunized. Moreover, when one gets a cold, the other one is sick too. However, if one of them has a problem with the organ they don’t share, the other twin will remain completely healthy.
In spite of having two brains, Brittany and Abby seem to share thoughts more often than not. Their friends claim they’ve seen the girls finish each other’s sentences and that they know how the other one is feeling or what she is going to say. That mixture of uniqueness, individuality, and dependency is extremely inspiring to see.
Brittany and Abby love their birthday and they enjoy having friends over on that day. They even make a cake together which looks like a perfectly coordinated dance. They have a large circle of friends who never stop admiring the girls’ positivity and enthusiasm, as well as their capabilities. The amount of self-confidence and self-esteem the girls have, despite their condition, is truly admirable.
Going into the public is always a new adventure for the twin girls. Aside from having to deal with people staring, or sometimes commenting on their looks, there are a plethora of confusing ’rules’ they have to understand and follow. For example, although they are considered to be two separate people, they are supposed to buy only one plane ticket if they are traveling. That is because they only take up one individual seat.
Upon graduating from college and obtaining degrees in education, the conjoined twins Abby and Brittany were ready for a brand new challenge. The girls decided to travel across the pond and visit Europe with the two of their college friends, Erin and Becca. The twins normally travel with two separate passports but book only one seat on the plane. They were ready to have the time of their lives!
The four girls decided to visit London and their experience there was shown in the last episode of their series Abby & Brittany, capturing the girls having fun while sightseeing around London. They visited Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and took a ride on the London Eye. English people were charmed by the twins and the girls managed to check one more wish off their bucket list. London was conquered!
When the twins came back from Europe, they were ready to turn a new leaf and start living the life completely different from the one they had lived before. Namely, like all 20-year-olds, Brittany and Abby came to an idea to move out of their parents’ home and try to be more independent. That is an important milestone for most people let alone conjoined twins. Moving out meant living without 24/7 care and support from their parents.
Although it seemed impossible, the girls made it. They moved into their own apartment and neither they nor their parents were sure about how that would pan out. However, Brittany and Abby knew they had each other for support and that they could do anything they wanted as long as they believed in themselves. Once again the girls have shown what they’re made of!
As all conjoined twins, Brittany and Abby have always been completely dependent on each other. They are forced to do everything together and since they are completely different, this can sometimes pose a problem. However, for the Hensel girls, it’s all about the compromise. They always try to meet halfway and ensure they are both happy about the decision they have made. And they are doing pretty darn good, considering the circumstances!