Connected For Life: The Incredible Story Of Abby And Brittany Hensel
Having a sister can be hard enough as it is. Now imagine you had to share everything with your sister…including your body. That’s what life is like every day for Minnesota sisters, Abby and Brittany Hansel. But despite being born conjoined, the sisters have become their own people and proven that life really is better together.
Born In Rural Minnesota In 1990
Conjoined twins form in the very early weeks of pregnancy, sometimes even before the mother knows she’s pregnant. The Hansel twins are conjoined because a fertilized egg failed to separate inside their mother’s womb. The twins may look like they share a complete body but in fact, they each have their own hearts, lungs, spines, stomachs, esophagus, gallbladder and kidneys. They do share a reproductive system, liver, rib cage, intestines and circulatory system. From the waist down, all of their organs are shared. They were also born with a third arm but that was removed at birth.
On the day the twins were born, doctors told their parents they probably wouldn’t last the night. Thankfully they did and surpassed where they were “supposed” to be physically and intellectually. Conjoined twins are extremely rare, to begin with. About one in every 40,000 babies worldwide is born conjoined. It’s even rarer that both Abby and Brittany survived. Only one percent of twins born conjoined survive more than a day. Brittany and Abby’s parents were given the option to separate the twins but declined. Doctors insisted it would be near impossible for both to survive the extensive procedures necessary to break them apart.
They’re The Rarest Dicephalus Twins In The World
Dicephalus twins are a rare form of twin where two heads sit alongside one another on a shared torso. Dicephalus literally means “two-headed.” In most cases, the second head isn’t fully formed or one or both of the babies is born stillborn, making Brittany and Abby extremely rare. Dicephalic twins make up only eleven percent of all the conjoined twins in the world. There are only three reported cases of dicephalic twins surviving into adulthood. Brittany and Abby are the only ones to have ever survived in the United States. There are two other cases, one in Italy and one in Turkey.
They Have Separate Immune Systems
Despite sharing many of the same major organs, Abby and Brittany have separate immune systems. One of them can be totally healthy while the other one is horribly sick. In fact, Brittany has had pneumonia twice in her life and Abby has never had it. The twins both agree that being sick is one of the few times they wish they were separated. When Brittany was ill as a child, Abby remembers wishing to be separated after being bored and restless while confined in the same bed as her sick sister. Brittany became so upset by the thought she cried uncontrollably until Abby assured her she wouldn’t leave her side.
They’re Very Active
Since the twins share the majority of their body, they’ve had to learn to work together to make it move. Thankfully they’ve had a lot of practice. The twins display an astonishing sense of coordination, each using one arm to perform tasks, including playing the piano, bowling, swimming, and other sports. Abby, the right twin can’t feel anything on the left side of the body while Brittany, the left twin, can’t feel anything on her right side. Abby’s in charge of operating the right arm and leg while Brittany takes charge of the left arm and leg. Together they accomplish whatever they set their minds to.
Shared Body, Different Personalities
Despite sharing a body, Brittany and Abby are their own people. They have distinct and individual personalities. Abby prefers pink and girly clothing and shoes while Brittany is more of a tomboy. The twins have had different haircuts and hair colors, and have even gone as far as having their clothing tailored to have different necklines and hemlines. Thankfully the twins have learned to compromise on a daily basis about what to wear and how to look. They’ve admitted to swapping off who chooses what to wear each day in order to keep one another feeling happy and unique.
They Were Raised Right
Abby and Brittany’s parents have also encouraged them to be their own person despite their physical limitations. “When children ask the girls if they have two heads, they say they don’t, but that each has their own head. That’s what we have encouraged them to do, to develop their own individuality as much as possible,” explains their mom, Patty. Brittany and Abby’s parents have carefully raised them to be their own person. When one girl did something wrong, they were sure to scold only one, not the other. It must have been difficult at times but it’s their strong upbringing that’s helped them become successful adults.
They’re Cover Models
When they were just six years old, the twins appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. This was their first step out into the spotlight. It led to their worldwide fame and later that year landed them on the cover of Life under the caption “One body, two souls.” They’ve also done television specials for the Discovery Channel, TLC, and the BBC. In 2012 they even earned their own series on TLC called Abby & Brittany. It showcased their everyday lives, their friends, their families and offered an inside glimpse at who they are. The show was one of the network’s most popular that year.
Simple Tasks Are Difficult
The twins have to think about everything together – what to wear, how to do their hair and makeup, where to go, how to get there, and more. Brittany and Abby can’t simply get up in the morning and do whatever they feel like. They must first consult one another. They’ve both admitted to not sleeping overly soundly due to the other moving around or making noise. In their TLC special they both spoke about the difficulties about getting ready in the morning. Neither considered themselves a morning person due to the lack of sleep and strenuous routine just to get out the door.
Separate But Together
Not only do the twins have distinct personalities they also excel in different subjects. Brittany enjoys writing while Abby prefers mathematics while. Abby is very outspoken while Brittany is quieter and laid back. Overall the girls’ interests thankfully overlap frequently. They both love volleyball, going to the movies, riding bikes, and playing musical instruments. For the moments when they can’t agree, they’ve learned to work together and compromise. “When it comes to decisions, there are compromises we have to make,” says Abby. “We take turns. We want to work it so each of us is happy and we find a happy medium.”
Their Futures Are Uncertain
Although Brittany and Abby have beat all odds, their futures are still a bit uncertain. Female conjoined twins have a longer life expectancy and overall healthier lifestyle than male conjoined twins but they still face complications. Seventy percent of the world’s conjoined twins are female. Initially, Brittany and Abby’s doctors didn’t expect them to live beyond 24 hours. They’ve had several surgeries to fix complications to their spine but overall maintained a very healthy body. Doctors still fear the girls might face some heart problems or other medical complications. Despite all that, doctors say the girls are “extraordinary” and “wonderfully blessed.”
Great Minds Think Alike
Not only are the twins physical movements in harmony, their thoughts are as well. When they write emails they respond as one person rather than as individuals. The twins are also able to anticipate one another’s feelings with little to no verbal communication. For tasks such as responding to email, they type and respond as one, anticipating each other’s feelings with little verbal communication between them. This is a common attribute to conjoined twins. Their close friend says, “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 Work To Educate Others
When the twins turned sixteen, they agreed to let TLC into their home to film a special documentary on what their daily lives were like. The twins hoped that by sharing their lives and experiences, they would be able to educate others and in return live out normal social lives. Although the twins aren’t huge fans of the press or being in the spotlight they decided to do the show to help break down preconceived ideas of what it was like to be conjoined. Offscreen they enjoy the comforts of their quiet Minnesota farmhouse away from cameras and photographers.
They Prefer Privacy
Although the twins have participated in quite a few public television shows and stories, they prefer to keep out of the spotlight. Growing up their parent’s thought it was best for them and their two younger siblings to avoid the public eye. They grew up in a tight-knit Minnesota farm community where they wouldn’t be the constant center of attention. In fact, one of their biggest pet peeves is when people stop and stare, as well as take pictures. Abby and Brittany have no issues with posing for a photo op, except when it’s without their permission.
They Can Drive
The twins successfully passed their drivers test when they were sixteen and transport themselves wherever they like. Both girls actually had to take the written driving test twice as well as pass the supervised portion of the test two times in a row. Their mother, Patty, admitted to feeling a little unsure about their driving saying, “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?” In order to drive successfully, Abby controls everything to the right of the driver’s seat, while Brittany mans the left.
They Graduated College
Both girls graduated from Bethel University with a degree in education. Originally, both twins wanted to focus on different concentrations within their major, but the extra coursework proved to be too challenging. They’ve moved out on their own and live totally independent lives together. “We were raised to believe we could do anything we wanted to do, ” the twins explain. The twins continue to surpass the expectations doctors, teachers and mentors have placed on them, year after year. They find the strength in each other to tackle any obstacle that might be tossed their way. Both girls just want to live normal lives like everyone else.
They Travel The World
The girls have never let their physical restraints stop them. Together they’ve traveled the world with friends. Although they only need one plane ticket, they each have their own passports. The girls went to Europe with their friends during their 2012 TLC special. For the most part, they live completely normal lives – they hang out with friends, go to parties and even went to college, moved out of their parent’s house, and got jobs. They’re just your average twenty-something girl…almost. In the opening credits of their show, they both chime in to say “The most amazing thing about us is we are like everyone else.”
They Always Have Separate Cakes
While the girls are similar in a lot of ways, they also differ in their food preferences. They each have their own stomach so they enjoy different types of cuisine and often don’t feel hungry at the same time. Each year, Brittany and Abby’s parents get them their own birthday cakes. The girls admit to occasionally sharing a meal if it’s something they both enjoy like hamburgers. It makes it easier for them to eat at the same time because they must help one another out with utensils and arm movements. They’ve learned to compromise when it comes to mealtime in order to eliminate chaos.
They Plan To Get Married
Both Brittany and Abby remain optimistic that they will one day get married and have a family. Although neither of them has found Mr. Right yet, they both feel there are two guys out there who will love them the way they are. Scientists have cautioned the girls about how difficult this step might be in their lives as they share a reproductive system. But the two have worked through everything else together in their 27 years of life and never let any other roadblocks deter them from achieving their goals. They will be sure to figure this out as well.
The twins are now 27 and work as elementary school teachers. They love working together because one can give the lesson while the other observes the class and answers questions. As of right now, the girls collect the salary of one person because they work together on virtually every task, however, they’re hopeful about their futures. “Maybe as 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. One can be teaching and one can be monitoring and answering questions,” said Brittany. “So in that sense, we can do more than one person,” she added.