Abigail and Brittany Hensel are about to turn sixteen. They’ve shared every single moment of their lives, but it wasn’t a matter of choice. These twin sisters are joined for life. Abby: “We wanted to make this documentary so people wouldn’t always have to stare and take pictures because we don’t like it when they take pictures”. They have a condition known as dicephalus.

Hensel Twins
Hensel Twins

Abby and Brittany were born with just one body between them. The only known surviving dicephalus conjoined twins. They’ve spent their lives in a small close-knit community, completely protected from prying eyes. The girls live on a farm in Minnesota with their younger brother and sister, Coty and Morgan, and their mother and father, Patty and Mike Hensel. As they reach sixteen, on the brink of womanhood, they decide to show the world what it’s really like to be joined for life.

Every moment of their lives requires the twins to cooperate with each other, and they appear to be totally in sync, but that doesn’t mean they always agree. Brittany describes Abby as bossy and outspoken. Abby describes Brittany as having been shy but becoming more confident, she likes to take her time with things.

Conjoined Dicephalus Twins

Abby and Brittany were born on March 7th, 1990 and the fact that they were conjoined twins was a complete shock to everyone. Pre-natal scans had shown only one baby.

Abby and Brittany had only a one in thirty million chance of surviving the first twenty-four hours. Their survival would all depend on how their organs were configured within their tiny body.

Queen Charlotte Hospital in London specialises in the most complicated twin pregnancies. Professor Nick Fisk, of the hospital, has followed the case of Abby and Brittany Hensel since they were born. “I have never seen, previously, a set of surviving dicephalus twins, so they are extraordinarily rare and the only ones, to my knowledge, alive today.

They have two separate hearts, one in each side of the chest, and each has its own set of lungs. The medial lung seems to be fused in the middle, as one might expect. This is consistent with an increasing degree of fusion as one moves down the body. Abby and Brittany had three arms at birth, but the third was a useless mid-line arm that didn’t function so it was removed when they were very young”.

Dicephalus Girls

To the medical world, Abby and Brittany were an astonishing case, confounding all expectations of dicephalus conjoined twins. With their bodies so closely linked it was clear that separation was out of the question.

Sharing a Body

Each twin controls their own half of the body and each twin has no sensation of touch from the arm of the other. Nobody really understands how this works in practice.

At the age of twelve, it was discovered that they had a life-threatening condition. Abby and Brittany’s rib cages were fused together and their spines were growing outwards rather than upwards. The girls had to undergo a major operation to stop their lungs running out of air. After being discharged from hospital they had gained two inches in height and were fit to live life to the full.

Professor Fisk explains more “Their degree of motor coordination is really quite extraordinary, it’s not as good as you or I but it’s pretty amazing. How does that happen? There’s absolutely no degree of fusion of their spinal columns; they are completely separate. This can be seen in the X-ray of their pelvis. They have a single pelvis but two sacrums, which is the lower part of the vertebral column, so I don’t think anyone can explain how that happens”.

After their sixteenth birthday, they plan to do what every American teenager does, learn to drive. However, this will require a great deal of cooperation and coordination. Abby controls the legs so will operate the pedals, they each control their own arm so both will steer but no-one really understands how the visual information is processed.

Dual Driving

Who should get the driving licence? To solve this problem they each take the test and having passed, each receives their own driving licence.

The family have always refused to have any non-essential tests carried out on the girls, despite great interest from the medical profession. While the girls are unique, the family wants to treat them just like everyone else.

Professor Fisk “There would be a very long queue of scientists, with very modern techniques of imaging brain and nervous system function, who would love to find out how the girls coexist”.

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