An incredible, odds-defying birth will tend to make the news. So when doctors delivered healthy conjoined twins Abby and Brittany Hensel in 1990, the story captured headlines for a good reason. After all, very few conjoined twins survive gestation and delivery.
And as the twins’ lives went on, the siblings continued to captivate audiences nationwide by letting them in on the tribulations and triumphs that came with their very specific condition. Two decades later, then, they’ve shared yet another one of their incredible milestones with the world.
Abby and Brittany Hensel were born on March 7, 1990, in Carver County, Minnesota. The twins naturally came into the world together, but they were conjoined in an incredibly rare way. In fact, they’re known as dicephalic parapagus twins, which means that while their bodies are unified, they each have a separate head.
On top of the survival rate of conjoined twins being extremely low, their mere occurrence is also rare: some estimate that one in 189,000 births brings a set of conjoined twins. Of that small population, only 11 percent are dicephalic parapagus twins such as Brittany and Abby.
The inner workings of Brittany and Abby’s anatomy are also remarkable. Their upper body, for instance, contains double of each organ – two stomachs, two hearts, four lungs, etc. – but their lower half is shared, with a single reproductive system.
In addition to that, Abby and Brittany each control one half of their body – that is, one arm and one leg each. Inevitably, then, the girls had to work together to master crawling, clapping and walking. In their later years, too, they learned how to swim, run, brush their hair and even drive side by side.
The way in which they conquered life together has received international attention on multiple occasions. When they were six, for example, the girls were invited onto The Oprah Winfrey Show. About the same time, the Hensels landed on the cover of Life magazine.
Six years after that, in 2002, the girls were part of a documentary called Joined For Life. The flick turned out to be a success for the girls, who later earned their own series called Abby & Brittany, which aired in 2012.
In their personal lives, too, the twins have had plenty of success. After high school, they studied together at Bethel University, where they both pursued Bachelor of Arts degrees in education. They admitted that they had considered specializing in different teaching disciplines but that they couldn’t have handled the extra coursework side by side.
By 2012 they had graduated from school and sought to enter the workforce. Not long after, they were able to share with the world another tidbit of exciting news. “We got a job!” they said in unison in a clip from their TV show, Abby & Brittany.
Together, the twins explained their new position, finishing each other’s sentences and clasping their hands as they talked. “We are fourth- and fifth-grade math specialists, so we’ll have two classes of math,” they said. “It’s part time, which is nice, so we’ll be kind of transitioning into the teaching world.”
Their mother, Patty, reflected on the twins’ path to their professional career, reminiscing on how the girls’ once-differing interests had finally converged. Patty said, “When they were five, I remember one wanted to be a pilot and one wanted to be a dentist. That was short-lived.”
She knew that teaching would be the right fit for her girls, though. “They’ve just always had a knack with kids, and kids have always been kind of drawn to them,” Patty said. “Maybe [it] started by curiosity but then once their simple questions are answered they still are just drawn to Ab and Brit.”
Presumably their new boss, the school’s principal Mr. Good, could also see that Abby and Brittany were meant to be educators. Indeed, he said 175 people had applied for the position, but he and his interviewing team had known right away that the Hensels were the ones for the job.
“After our interview I showed the girls out the door,” Mr. Good recalled on the Hensels’ TV program. “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.’”
Mr. Good did acknowledge that having conjoined twins on staff was “uncharted territory,” but he covered all of his bases so that the Hensels would easily transition into their new careers. “That’s why I called [human resources],” he said before mimicking his phone call. “‘Hello, H.R., what can we do? How does this all work?’”
With H.R., the Hensels then each signed their own employment contract. They also decided that they would split the salary for the part-time role they had received: Brittany would get one half; Abby would take the other.
Mr. Good said the school also had a plan to introduce and welcome the conjoined twins as teachers within their community. “What we’ve done is we’ve sent out letters […] and will reintroduce [the Hensels] again during open house,” he said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Good felt as though this effort was unnecessary. After all, the Hensels’ credentials and character spoke volumes to anyone who might be initially surprised by their appearance. “I think after anyone sits with these exceptional young women, I think any of their concerns will just vanish,” he said.
As for the Hensels, they didn’t have any concerns of their own. All they could do was express how much they were looking forward to the upcoming school year. In unison, they both said, “I’m excited; I can’t wait!” And it seems as though their zeal has only continued to push their careers forward. In December 2017, in fact, In Touch Weekly reported that the twins now teach fifth grade together.
But Abby and Brittany Hensel aren’t the only conjoined twins with an incredible story to tell. Yes, Lexi and Sydney Stark were born fused together in 2001, and no one was sure if they’d survive. What’s more, the statistics suggested that one or both of them would be lucky to lead lives free of complications. The pair seemingly defied the odds, however, and 16 years on, they opened up about their unique connection.
In November 2000 Emily and James Stark were no doubt delighted to discover that they were expecting a baby. Yet Emily had a strange feeling about her pregnancy. In fact, she says, she had a premonition that she was expecting twins. And an ultrasound soon confirmed that she was right.
But the expectant mom apparently had another hunch: she thought her two babies were conjoined. She hoped, however, that this particular prediction would never come true. So, at her next scan, she probably wished that her motherly instincts were off on this occasion.
Emily and James therefore likely waited with bated breath for their ultrasound technician’s evaluation. And what he said will live with them forever. “I remember Dr. McDuffie going over and over one section of my stomach. [He] turned everything off, and he said, ‘They’re joined.’ And I checked out,” Emily recalled in an interview with Denver7 in November 2017.
The devastated parents later started researching conjoined twins. And soon they began to worry about what the future had in store for them and their children. “Everything we came up with was sideshow freaks, all negative. It was really disheartening, and these are your kids, [so] you get nothing positive out of that,” James revealed.
However, Emily and James found some hope to cling to. It turned out that their twins were connected at the bottom of their spines, so they each had a full set of internal organs. And, as a result, they each had a greater chance of surviving separation.
Conjoined twin births are very rare, of course, and actually account for just one in every 200,000 live births. And their chances of survival are even more slim. In fact, reports state that over a third of conjoined twins are stillborn, and roughly a third of those born alive will only survive one day. On the whole, then, the likelihood of conjoined twins living beyond this reportedly lies between 5 and 25 percent.
So when Emily and James welcomed their twins in March 2001, doctors delivered the girls, Lexi and Sydney, via cesarean section. Yet this was only the start of their journey. Seven months after the birth, you see, the new parents gave the go-ahead for the twins to have their sixth surgery – which would lead to separation.
But such a procedure carries a multitude of risks. And in Lexi and Sydney’s case, the doctors’ main concern was paralysis. Surgeons would, after all, need to carefully separate each girl’s nerves in the shared base of their spines. So if they couldn’t do this, there was a chance that the girls would never be able to walk.
Emily and James nevertheless felt that separation was the only choice that they had to give their daughters lives worth living. “We could keep them forever, or we can try to make their lives better with the potential that we may not be bringing them home,” Emily told CBS News in 2001.
Thankfully, the twins’ 15-and-a-half-hour surgery was a complete success. “It’s like God had a dotted line on where to cut them apart,” Emily said. “They were not mixed up. You knew exactly that was Lexi’s body and this was Sydney’s body. And every hour, we just got better and better news.”
Consequently, in October 2001, Lexi and Sydney hit the headlines. They were in fact the first successfully separated conjoined twins in the state of Colorado. But once the attention around them had died down, the girls could hopefully go on to lead completely normal lives.
And left to get on with their development, Lexi and Sydney seemingly went from strength to strength. “Every time we turned around we had hope. We had 100 percent hope… that they would be potty trained, that they’d be running and playing hockey, and that’s what kept us moving forward,” Emily told Denver7.
Yet when the girls hit their teenage years, it became clear that the pair had two very different characters. Lexi developed a keen interest in cookery and baking, for instance, and Sydney enjoys tinkling the ivories.
So, 16 years on from their separation surgery, it’s probably impossible to tell that Lexi and Sydney were ever conjoined. They are both regular, lively high school students, for one thing. And both teenagers have a passion for sport too. Mind you, Lexi prefers hockey, while Sydney is a rugby whiz.
Both girls have recently received their drivers’ licenses as well. But apparently they have different styles when it comes to hitting the road. In fact, according to their mom, Lexi is a speed queen while Sydney takes things a bit more slowly.
Yet despite their individual quirks, Lexi and Sydney claim that they share a special twin bond. “We do know when the other is hurt or in an uncomfortable position,” Lexi revealed. “It’s like twin to the rescue. That’s exactly what it is, and we don’t even have to think about it.”
And even more amazingly, the twins often find themselves sitting or standing by each other in the same position in which they were conjoined. “We were connected at the lower body. Our spines made a U… So it’s natural for us to go on the same sides where we were connected,” Lexi explained.
The future continues to look bright for the 16-year-olds too. They are, after all, both looking into colleges. They’re not concerned about being close to each other, though, and are even eying up universities as far away as the United Kingdom and Canada.
And seeing their daughters thrive probably confirms to Emily and James that they did the right thing by having the twins separated. Lexi and Sydney now actually have the freedom – including from each other – to live their lives in exactly the ways they wish.