By Carrie Forrest, MBA/MPH/Dec 14, 2020
Twins and even siblings are known to share a special bond, but even that doesn’t compare to the inherent proximity of conjoined twins. Although the condition is very rare, when it does occur it captivates the attention and curiosity of people around the world. Such has been the case for conjoined twins Abby and Brittany Hensel, who have overcome all of the odds and miraculously defied all expectations.
Shortly after Abby and Brittany Hensel’s birth, doctors presented their parents with the option of operating in an attempt to separate the conjoined twin girls.
Due to low survival rates of one or both babies in such surgeries, however, the Hensels quickly opted against that route. Still, doctors said the twins were unlikely to even survive their first night. Not only would they survive, but the Hensel twins would surpass all expectations and do the unbelievable.
Unique Even For Conjoined Twins
The Hensel twins quickly made headlines as they miraculously became the first pair of conjoined twins in the U.S. to survive infancy.
There are only two other known cases in the world of surviving dicephalus twins – one in Italy and one in Turkey. But their astonishing story doesn’t end there.
At the same time, the twins do share some major anatomical parts including a rib cage, large intestine, liver, reproductive system and essentially everything from the waist down.
As the twins grew, though, they’d demonstrate a unique trait that’s truly remarkable.
Abby (the right twin) controls the right arm and leg but can’t feel anything on her left side while Brittany (the left twin) is in charge of the left arm and leg and can’t feel anything on her right side.
Keeping that in mind, it’s astonishing what the twins would go on to do.
It Takes Two
As the years passed it became apparent that the Hensel twins loved an active lifestyle and had a knack for activities such as riding bikes, playing the piano, bowling and swimming.
While each twin inevitably relies on the other for many physical tasks, in other aspects of life they are surprisingly distinct.
Abby prefers pink and bright colors while Brittany is more of a tomboy. The twins also show their individuality by sporting different haircuts, hair colors, shoes and leggings.
Additionally, they have clothing that’s specially made with different necklines and hems depending on their individual tastes. But, there’s something else, perhaps more unexpected, that the twins don’t share.
Together But Different
While falling sick is never any fun, Abby and Brittany both agree that one of the few times they wish they were separated is when sickness strikes.
Once, a sick Brittany was so upset when Abby expressed that sentiment that she cried nonstop until her sister assured her she would stay put. While the twins’ lives might seem unusual to outside observers, the next page might change your mind.
Abby and Brittany’s parents put in ample effort to raise them and treat them as individuals. Like any kids growing up that also meant that their parents took care to individually discipline them and not punish both for the transgressions of one.
The twins’ supportive upbringing likely contributed to their extraordinary strength of character that became apparent early on when the media beckoned.
First Step Into Spotlight
After the Oprah special, the world was captivated by the twins’ unique story and they gained worldwide fame. Later that year, Abby and Brittany graced the cover of Life magazine and conducted specials with the likes of the Discovery Channel, TLC and the BBC.
Little did they know the, but a few more years down the line they’d become household names for something else.
When Brittany stopped growing prematurely at age 12, Abby had surgery to halt her spinal growth.
Additionally, both twins underwent operations for scoliosis and preventative chest surgery to prevent difficulties with breathing down the line. Still, nothing would stop them from taking on something huge a few years later.
Audiences were fascinated and entertained by the spunky young women who endearingly bickered with each other all the while treading through young adulthood with the support of their loving family and friends.
The show became one of the network’s most popular productions that year, but their reason for participating might surprise you.
Education And Outreach
Instead of seeking fame, Abby and Brittany Hensel and their family agreed to do the TLC reality show in hopes of educating others about their circumstances and reducing the stigma associated with it.
The series shed light on their incredible lives, but you won’t imagine all that it revealed.
An Inside Look
Abby and Brittany have learned to compromise and switch off making certain decisions like who gets to choose their clothing.
Admittedly, the twins aren’t always simultaneously hungry or able to fall asleep at the same time. Knowing that the world wasn’t very familiar with the lives of conjoined twins, Abby and Brittany would take extraordinary action.
Abby and Brittany each actually had to take their own written driving exam in addition to passing the practical portion of the test.
In order to operate a vehicle, they jointly control the steering wheel while Abby controls everything on the right side of the driver’s seat and Brittany manages the left. As excited as the twins were about driving, not everyone was as sure.
Accelerating Through Life
The twins impressed everyone, though, and were ecstatic about having their own driver’s licenses. They obviously have a shared interest in most aspects of their lives.
Their father, Mike, has said that they’ve impressively learned just as fast, or faster, than anyone else. Abby and Brittany also love volleyball, running, swimming and biking. It’s not only the twins’ physical abilities that work in unison, though.
The Hensel twins usually type emails as one person rather than as two individuals. Their friends are always amazed by what they call their “twintuition.”
Saying: “They finish each other’s sentences – they both know what the other is thinking and what she is going to say. It makes me smile all the time.” They’d soon have plenty more to smile about too.
Abby enjoyed math while Brittany opted for writing. In school, the twins were given their own assignments although they hilariously admitted once in a TV interview that they sometimes peak at the other’s work.
As high school progressed, however, the twins would have to face some serious questions about the future.
Thinking About The Future
At birth, no one was sure what to expect from the twins, but as they grew it became clear that they would stop at nothing to achieve all they could in life.
But their high school graduation was still just the beginning of a road full of surprises.
At that point, though, the twins had moved out from their parents’ house and were living on their own.
“We were raised to believe we could do anything we wanted to do,” the twins have explained. Among the regular compromises that they have learned to make, the girls have found strength and inspiration in each other.
In 2012, the twins again surpassed the expectation of their doctors, teachers and many others when they graduated from college with a degree in education.
This was the point in life where their TLC reality show picked up on the lively, sweet conjoined twins. Still, no one could have guessed what they would do after college.
Traveling to Britain and Italy, their experience was like that of many young backpackers. While each twin traveled with her own passport, though, they only needed to buy one plane ticket.
After London, Rome and Venice the twins had to again think about what their post-grad lives would hold. What would they do for a living?
Future Health Concerns
They fear the twin may someday face heart issues or other medical problems, but nonetheless, doctors say Abby and Brittany are “extraordinary” and “wonderfully blessed.
The Hensel twins even had a third arm removed when they were born, but it hasn’t seemed to have any negative effect. The twins determination and accomplishments are all the more impressive even when compared to other conjoined twins. But that’s not all.
Female conjoined twins girls are the most common – making up about 70% conjoined twins. Conjoined twin girls also have a higher life expectancy than their male counterparts.
Keeping in mind those facts, it’s no wonder Abby and Brittany Hensel are some of the world’s most famous conjoined twins. Where they are now, though, was previously unimaginable.
Another Birthday Another Record
“I want the world to see Abby and Brittany as two individuals, that have the same hopes and fears as any child their age,” Patty Hensel said years ago when the twins were young.
With that kind of support, they are now engaged in something else that no one initially foresaw.
During college, they gained experience as student teachers in a 4th-grade classroom.
Encouraged by the prospect of enhancing young minds and changing the world for the better, the twins quickly proved their talents and professionalism which led to an amazing promotion.
Making A Difference
Many people have wondered about their salary, and the twins have acknowledged that they started with one salary, but they’re considering negotiation for a little more when they have some more experience.
After all, they do have two degrees and in many ways do more than one person. As the twins have gotten older, though, they have changed their view on the spotlight.
The twins have acknowledged that while they don’t mind being conjoined, there is something that really irks them; and that’s gawkers and people who take pictures and stare without asking.
While the twins admit that they are unique, you’ll be blown away by their view of separation.
Together For Life
At this point though, the twins couldn’t see their reality any other way.
They wouldn’t want to be confined to wheelchairs or endure the other risks of separating and are glad to have a permanent companion in their journey through life.
Although doctors have told the twins that family life might be a complicated step in their lives, they don’t see any actual physical reasons why they could not give birth and raise their own family.
Although the world remains fascinated by these famous conjoined twins, we might not be hearing from them any time soon.
Faded Away From Spotlight
The girls decided it was time for them to focus on themselves and their dreams more and less of the spotlight that seemed to be on them.
They know how unique they are, and their family does as well. They now wanted to shift gears.
The two girls were attached at the chest and abdomen and were permanently facing eachother.
What’s more, several of their vital organs were twisted together. However, unlike Abby and Brittany, they had two separate sets of arms and legs.
Should They Separate Them?
Though separation surgery could potentially save their lives, it could also lead to tragic results.
Should they attempt to separate their baby girls, or should they leave them as nature intended?
Little Abby and Isabelle were overall healthy babies, but their rare condition lead to some devestating health scares. They were gaining weight and developing nicely, but even a hint of a cold could mean grave danger.
When the conjoined twins were two months old, Abby suffered a respiratory infection and was struggling to breathe. Would this affect her sister? The twins had to be airlifted to a hospital where they were monitored and given oxygen masks. Every ailment had to be treated with utmost seriousness.
The Only Option
At the clinic, they talked to Dr. Christopher Moir, who successfully separated another pair of conjoined twins in the past.
Dr. Moir explained that Isabelle was supporting Abigail with her own digestive system, and was not getting enough nutrients herself. Together, they decided that separation was the only option.
It would be a risky and difficult surgery that would require a large medical team of no less than 17 surgeons.
Countless things could go wrong, meaning the twins might not make it out of the operating room. Parents Amy and Jesse were terrified.
Each girl had her own medical team. The surgeons’ biggest challenge was to move Isabelle’s heart from her sister’s chest and into her own.
After several attempts that caused alarming blood pressure drops, they finally succeeded. Hours later, the doctors finally announced the good news — the operation was a success. Isabelle and Abby were officially separated.
Two Weeks Later
For most of their childhood, the girls had to wear protective clothing to safeguard their chests and attend regular checkups at the Mayo Clinic.
Apart from that, they were regular, giggly little girls who shared an extra special bond.
They are now happy and healthy individuals with very different personalities. Abby is the sensitive one, whereas Isabelle is more talkative and outgoing.
And while the Carlsen twins both love clothes, cats and gymnastic, they also share a healthy sense of competition and can often be found competing over grades at school.
Against the Odds
Considering their unique starting point, the girls still require some special attention and concerns.
Their digestive systems are still frail, and any fall, tumble or stomachache are a reason for major concern.
What’s Next for the Carlsen Twins?
The twins’ mother, Amy, wonders whether they’ll grow up to be doctors of journalists, having been surrounded by so many of them growing up, but who knows?
One thing’s certain, though — the two girls will always have eachother’s backs, no matter what.