July 3, 2018 | Ryan
From the moment they were born, conjoined twins Abby and Brittany Hensel have been special. Their incredible, odds-defying birth made headlines, and since then, they’ve continued to capture the hearts of minds of everyone who finds out about their amazing journey. When expectant parents Patty, a registered nurse, and Mike Hensel, a carpenter and landscaper, went to the hospital in rural Minnesota they had no idea that they would be welcoming twins, let alone that their precious first-borns would be conjoined. While they were surprised, the new parents were filled with nothing but love.
The twins were born on March 7, 1990 in Carver County, Minnesota. They 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% are dicephalic parapagus twins such as Brittany and Abby.
Chances of Survival
Interestingly enough, south-west Asia and Africa see the highest numbers of conjoined twins. In general, females are more often affected than males. But birth can be extremely traumatic. Sadly, very few conjoined twins survive gestation and delivery. It is estimated that between 40 to 60% of these births are delivered stillborn, with 35% surviving only one day. Of the survivors, 70% are connected at the chest or upper abdomen, 25% are connected lower down and share hips or legs, and 5% are connected at the head.
And this is just the beginning of all the potential problems. Imagine getting a crash course in all of this while going through labor. Shortly after Abby and Brittany Hensel’s birth, Patty and Mike had a whole new challenge to consider. Their doctors presented them with the option of operating in an attempt to separate the conjoined twin girls. In the past, a shared organ such as a liver or kidney meant that surgery was impossible. Doctors have since used advanced technology and techniques to attempt such operations, but they are still super dangerous.
Due to the low survival rates of one or both babies in such surgeries, 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. The girls quickly made the news 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. And their astonishing story doesn’t end there.
The Hensel twins continued to defy odds throughout their childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. Due to their phenomenal strength and captivating personalities, the girls have gained the attention of audiences worldwide by letting them in on the trials, tribulations and triumphs that came with their very specific condition. Fans and admirers have been able to follow them throughout their journey, watching and cheering them on as they show how complicated many daily tasks, that most take for granted, can actually be. Prepare yourself to be inspired in ways you never thought possible…
A Normal Childhood
Brittany and Abby weren’t expected to live more than 24 hours. But they did, and haven’t stopped since. To everyone’s astonishment, they’ve continued to thrive. Shockingly, their childhood was relatively normal, in spite of several surgical procedures. 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 hopefully alleviate difficulties with breathing down the line.
A look inside the inner workings of Brittany and Abby’s anatomy show how truly remarkable their survival and existence is. While they appear to share a single body, the twins, in fact, each have their own heart, pair of lungs, stomach, kidneys, gallbladder, spine and spiral cord. Conjoined twins are formed when a fertilized egg fails to separate inside the mother’s womb, and therefore they often end up sharing certain body parts and/or organs.
Top To Bottom
The complexities of their upper bodies are even more astounding considering how different their lower half is from the top. Below the waste, everything is shared, including some major anatomical parts like the rib cage, large intestine, liver, and even a single reproductive system. And these are just the physical details. There’s still so much to learn about how they actually function. As the twins got older, the remarkable nuances involved in daily behavior would reveal themselves…
Two Halves Of A Whole
As unbelievable as this sounds, Abby and Brittany each control one half of their body. Abby, the twin on the right, controls the right arm and leg but can’t feel anything on her left side. Brittany, the twin on the left, 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…
Learning How To Live
With Brittany’s leg being about 2 inches shorter than Abby’s, essentially requiring her to walk on her tiptoes, the girls worked together to master crawling, clapping and walking. They would go on to figure out how to perform everyday tasks like grooming and getting dressed. 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.
A Loving Mother
Despite having to rely on each other for physical tasks, the twins can be surprisingly distinct. While they’re physically conjoined, they were raised to develop their own individual personalities. Their mother, Patty Hensel, said, “When children ask the girls if they have two heads, they say they don’t, but that each has their own head.” Abby is taller at 5 feet 2 inches and more outspoken while Brittany is 4 feet 10 inches and more reserved.
Beyond their more general differences, like one being more of an introvert and the other being more of a extrovert, 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…
Sick Of Being Sick
While they share many major organs, the twins incredibly have separate immune systems. When one is sick, the other isn’t inevitably infected. In fact, Brittany has had pneumonia twice in her lift while Abby has never contracted it. But they have expressed that being sick is the only time they ever wish they were separated. Once, Brittany was so upset when Abby expressed that sentiment that she cried nonstop until her sister assured her she would stay put.
A Supportive Upbringing
Apart from their unique condition, the twins’ upbringing was pretty typical. They have a younger sister and brother, and their parents put in ample effort to raise them and treat them as individuals. Like any kids growing up, this also meant that their parents took care to individually discipline them as much as possible. The twins’ supportive upbringing likely contributed to their extraordinary strength of character that became apparent early on when the spotlight found them.
At just 6 years old, the girls were invited onto The Oprah Winfrey Show. Soon after, they landed on the cover of Life magazine. In the following years, the twins conducted specials with the likes of the Discovery Channel, TLC and the BBC. In 2002, the girls were part of a documentary called Joined For Life. It was so successful the Hensels earned their own series called Abby & Brittany, which aired in 2012.
Joined For Life
When they were 16, the Hensel twins invited TLC cameras into their home for a documentary. The footage was also later used in their reality TV series Abby & Brittany that aired in 2012 when they were 22. The groundbreaking show offered a glimpse into their lives and instantly turned them into household names. The show became one of the network’s most popular productions that year, but their reason for participating might surprise you…
Unlike many who participate in reality television, the Hensels weren’t big fans of being the center of attention. Coming from rural Minnesota, they actually preferred to keep a low profile and their parents thought it would be best if their children could grow up unencumbered by constant cameras. Instead of seeking fame, they agreed to do the TLC reality show in hopes of educating others about their circumstances and reducing the stigma associated with it.
The twins have to do everything together, from hair and makeup to deciding when to go to bed. Thankfully, they’ve 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.
Cameras chronicled their teenager years, including a milestone that every 16-year-old dreams of. Amazingly, the Hensels passed their driver’s test. They 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.
Licensed To Drive
The twins were ecstatic about their driver’s licenses. But their mother, Patty, wondered, “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?” Beyond this, their parents were so proud. Their father, Mike, has said that they’ve impressively learned just as fast, or faster, than anyone else. And it’s not only the twins’ physical abilities that work in unison…
While they had to learn cooperation and communication to harmonize their movements, they have an acute ability to understand and anticipate what the other is thinking or feeling with little or no verbal cues. This “twintuition” is common in conjoined twins and comes in handy for tasks like using a computer. The Hensels usually type emails as one person rather than as two individuals. Their friends love that the girls often finish each other’s sentences.
This aspect of the way they’re able to operate was definitely helpful when they were kids, but it didn’t mean high school would be easy. Most teens have enough anxieties about navigating those four long years, and the twins were likely no exception. Despite any concerns, Abby and Brittany excelled with flying colors and thrived academically. Although the twins’ interests in life largely overlap, when it came to school in particular, they preferred different subjects.
Brittany enjoyed writing while Abby preferred math, two subjects that couldn’t be more different from each other. The twins were given their own assignments, but have admitted that they sometimes peaked at the other’s work. Like all teens, as high school was nearing an end, Abby and Brittany had to think about their futures. In 2008, the girls made history as the first pair of conjoined twins in the United States to graduate high school.
Off To College
After graduating from Mayer Lutheran High School, the girls went on to Bethel University, where they both pursued Bachelor of Arts degrees in education. They admitted that they had initially considered specializing in different teaching disciplines but that they couldn’t have handled the extra coursework side by side. At that point, the twins had moved out from their parents’ house and were living on their own, which created a whole new set of challenges to overcome.
On Their Own
Learning how to live on their own was tough, but the girls found strength and inspiration in each other. Like many college students, Abby and Brittany enjoyed exploring their independence away from their family, all the while making friends, going on spring break, partying and, of course, learning. While Abby would drink coffee to get her through a long night of studying, Brittany would avoid it because it affected her differently and made her heart race.
After an exciting four years, in 2012, the Hensels again surpassed the expectations of their doctors, teachers and many others when they graduated from college with degrees in education. But they didn’t slow down. This was around the same time their TLC reality show picked up, and is just another example of how determined and strong the twins are, going from high school directly to college and living away from home to having their own television show.
The girls have aways strived for, and succeeded in achieving, the most normal lives possible. So like many post grads, they wanted to travel and see the world. After college, Abby and Brittany fulfilled their dream and went to Europe with two friends. 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.
Back To Reality
After London, Rome and Venice the twins had to again think about what their post-grad lives would hold. Keep in mind, from the moment they were born doctors were concerned that Abby and Brittany would encounter severe medical issues that would endanger or limit their livelihood. While the twins have certainly overcome all odds by living longer and healthier lives than ever expected, doctors still have some concerns for the future…
Of all the potentially issues that the twins could encounter at some point in their development, medical professionals fear they may someday face heart problems. But beyond this, doctors say Abby and Brittany are “extraordinary” and “wonderfully blessed.” They even had a third arm removed when they were born, but it hasn’t seemed to have any negative effect. Their lives are even more special when they’re compared to those of other conjoined twins.
Against All Odds
As previously stated, only about one in every 200,000 babies in the world is born conjoined. Tragically, in most cases, it’s rare for both or even one twin to survive, with only around 1% surviving more than a day after they’re born. Females are more common, making up 70% of all conjoined twins. Girls also have a higher life expectancy than their male counterparts. Again, knowing all this, the Hensels are exceptional.
They grew up, graduated high school and college, lived on their own and even traveled around the world, but what was next for the twins? Like so many others at that stage, they wanted to enter the workforce. 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 were able to turn this into an official job…
Born To Teach
Their mom was thrilled to hear the news, especially considering, “When they were five, I remember one wanted to be a pilot and one wanted to be a dentist. That was short-lived.” But teaching truly fit. “They’ve just always had a knack with kids, and kids have always been kind of drawn to them. Maybe [it] started by curiosity but then once their simple questions are answered they still are just drawn to Ab and Brit.”
They explained, “We are fourth- and fifth-grade math specialists, so we’ll have two classes of math. It’s part time, which is nice, so we’ll be kind of transitioning into the teaching world.” But then, in October 2017, the Hensel twins were offered a full-time position teaching an elementary school class at Mounds View Elementary School. The girls enjoy working together as they can multitask with giving lessons, answering questions and keeping an eye on the students.
The school’s principal, Mr. Good, could see that Abby and Brittany were meant to be educators. He said 175 people applied for the position, but he and his interviewing team knew right away that the Hensels were the ones for the job. “After our interview I showed the girls out the door. 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.’”
On The Dotted Line
The girls were thrilled to receive the offer and accepted with no hesitation. They signed their own employment contracts and decided they would split the salary: Brittany would get one half; Abby would take the other. And they’re thinking about negotiating for a raise when they have some more experience. After all, they do have two degrees and in many ways do more than one person, so those negotiations should go well.
Their new boss acknowledged that having conjoined twins on staff was “uncharted territory,” but he covered all of his bases so that the Hensels could easily transition into their new careers. He knew 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.
Taking A Step Back
As they settle into their careers, the girls are focusing more and more on helping others. This has always been a priority, and was the main reason they decided to do a show in the first place. But with they’re presence and expertise being needed in the classroom, where it directly affects many young minds, the twins feel less inclined to continue living life in the public eye.
Away From The Spotlight
Abby and Brittany Hensel have taken part in several media productions and interviews over the years. Despite being naturals in front of the camera, they don’t like being treated as an unusual spectacle. The twins have acknowledged that while they don’t mind being conjoined, they certainly could live without 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…
The Hensels are often asked if they’ve considered separating. In short, their answer is no. As the girls grew older, their parents also became more confident in their decision not to separate Abby and Brittany as babies. At this point, the twins can’t imagine living 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.
Both twins have expressed their desire to date, marry and have children. While many questions surround this dream, they stay optimistic that there is true romance out there for them and remain very private when it comes to romance. 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.
Out Of The Public Eye
But sadly for all their followers and fans, the twins have decided that the next phase of their lives will be kept away from the public eye. Despite their earlier collaborations with the media, which were intended to inform and educate, the Hensel twins have made a concerted effort to fade away from the spotlight in recent years. Their desire to keep a low profile mirrors their parents’ initial hopes for their kids’ privacy.
The twins turned 28 in 2018, celebrating another amazing year. Their mom once said, “I want the world to see Abby and Brittany as two individuals, that have the same hopes and fears as any child their age.” The twins confirmed, “We were raised to believe we could do anything we wanted to do,” and so far they have. Hopefully, despite the decision to keep their lives private, the twins will always keep the world updated.