TLC’s Reality Show
When the show first aired, the show portrayed conjoined twins in a positive light. However, this was not the first time the world had been introduced to Abby and Brittany.
Life In The Spotlight
The Hensel twins first gained media attention during the mid-90’s, many years before the August 2012 debut of their reality series. They initially appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996, giving them their first experience with fame, and then they were given a cover feature in Life Magazine. A picture of the conjoined twins appeared alongside the caption “One Body, Two Souls,” and the magazine article, titled “The Hensels Summer,” spoke of the twins’ day-to-day life. The article was then followed up again just two years later.
Having appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show at such a young age, the twin girls fail to remember much of this significant and historical day. However, the world has never forgotten the day Oprah invited the twins to her show since it was the first time conjoined twins were interviewed in front of such a large audience. Their story, nonetheless, resonated with so many Americans who watched the show, that the girls suddenly became famous overnight, leading to newfound recognition and popularity.
In 2002, the girls appeared on a documentary created by Advanced Medical Productions, called Joined For Life. The show was broadcast on the Discovery Health Channel, with a follow up called Joined At Birth a year later. That same year, in 2003, Time magazine published an updated story of the girls, then aged 11. In 2006, TLC created a television special for the girls called Joined For Life: Abby and Brittany Turn 16, and the following year they appeared on the UK series, Extraordinary People.
Growing Up Together
Born in Carver County, Minnesota, Abby and Brittany are daughters to Patty, a registered nurse, and Mike Hensel, a carpenter and landscaper. The girls grew up in New Germany, Minnesota, with their younger brother and sister, and their childhood was certainly full of struggles and obstacles. The conjoined twins found it difficult to master even the simplest of tasks most children would take for granted. Since the twins are in control of half their body each, even learning how to crawl took time to achieve.
Double Birthday Surprise
On March 7, 1990, Patty Hensel and her husband were expecting to welcome just one baby into the world. After all, that is exactly what her prenatal scans had shown in the months leading to the birth. When Patty then gave birth to Dicephalus conjoined twins, it was a huge shock to both parents. The two babies, meanwhile, were born with just one body between them and had a one in thirty million chance of living past their first 24 hours.
Not Everything Is Shared
The twins defied all odds and, as they grew older, their parents were adamant in ensuring both girls had a sense of individualism and independence. The Hensel twins’ parents pushed both their daughters to develop their own personalities and become their own person, which meant also pushing them to step outside of their comfort zone. The twins would try new sports or musical instruments to see where their passions lied. However, when it came to punishment, it was not fair to punish both for something the other had done.
When it comes to twins, they can be produced in one of two ways. A woman can release two eggs instead of one, or she produces just one egg which divides after fertilization. Conjoined twins, however, are formed when a woman produces a single egg which doesn’t separate after fertilization. Identical twins are formed after the embryo begins to grow and develop and later divides during the first weeks of conception. In the girls’ case, the process was cut short and left only a partially divided egg.
Sharing Is Caring
Abby and Brittany may share a body, but they do have two hearts, two pairs of lungs, two spines, two esophagi, and three kidneys. In fact, they were born with three arms, but the third arm was surgically removed after their birth. They do, however, have one ribcage, one liver, a semi-shared nervous system and a fully-shared circulatory system. After the waist down, they share everything, including a bladder and reproductive system. They can also only feel sensations on their respective side of the body.
The Price Of Fame
Their appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show at the age of six may have led to newfound fame for the girls, but they were able to live a somewhat normal life for the next ten years. It was only when TLC took on their story in 2006 that their popularity started to grow and they became recognized in public. While the girls can understand a sweet hello from fans, unwanted pictures and stares from people are what gets to the twins the most.
Teamwork Is Key
The conjoined twins have a rare medical condition called dicephalic parapagus, which means they share a single body with separate heads and necks. Abby and Brittany control one side of their conjoined body each, making basic physical tasks such as swimming, walking, running, or riding a bicycle more complicated. These all became well-rehearsed cooperative efforts whereby the girls had to work together to be able to complete any such task. The twins took on these challenges, however, and continue to live active lives like other girls their age.
The Original Hiltons
Before the world came to know of Abby and Brittany, there was Daisy and Violet Hilton, the British conjoined twins born in 1908. The Hilton twins shared everything and they were always in the spotlight. They loved to travel around Europe and the United States, and they ended up in the vaudeville and American burlesque circuits during the 1920s. The two girls both went onto marry gay men, a decision many saw as a publicity stunt, and the twins died before their 61st birthday.
Statistics show that one in every 200,000 live births results in conjoined twins, with the chances of survival for these twins being between 5 and 25 percent after they are born. The Hensel twins are a result of a single fertilized egg failing to separate and are the rarest form of conjoined twins who were given a very slim chance of survival. After they were born, their parents were told their newborn babies wouldn’t survive 24 hours, but 28 years later they are still here.
Even with the slim odds of conjoined twins surviving long after their birth, about 40 to 60 percent of conjoined twins are sadly stillborn at birth, with 35 percent not making it past 24 hours. Conjoined twins are also always the same gender, with females having a much higher survival rate for an unknown reason. Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst are the first documented case of conjoined twins, dating back to the year 1100 in Biddenden, County of Kent, England. The twin girls lived to the age of 34.
Experiencing Sickness Alone
Abby and Brittany may share vital organs, but that does not mean they feel all the same symptoms or get ill at the same time. At one point, Brittany suffered from a severe case of pneumonia when she was a child, and Abby remained completely healthy. Abby even tried to take the medication on behalf of her sister when Brittany was feeling too sick to take it herself. Nevertheless, when one gets a stomach ache, the other twin feels it on their side too.
One Body, Two Walks
Even after 28 years of spending every moment together, the conjoined twins are completely separate people who do not share everything in common. When it comes to their choice of food, clothes, and even their sleep schedule, the girls have different preferences and, additionally, have their own walk. Brittany tends to walk more on her toes, while Abby has a more flat gait, causing it to appear that the girls walk with a slight limp. The difference in walk has resulted in Brittany’s calf muscle becoming more developed and muscular.
Growing up in a house with siblings can be challenging, but these twins have faced the challenge of even sharing a body, such a thing many people couldn’t even comprehend. Nevertheless, the twin girls have learned how to live and function together, making their day-to-day lives tolerable with one another. In fact, even with two different personalities, the girls rarely argue. According to their mother, Abby is the energetic one who likes being in charge and would “rule the whole house,” while Brittany is soft-spoken and likes going out.
Twice The Style
The twins can express themselves through their different taste in fashion, jewelry, and shoes. Just as they have two different personalities, the twins have very different fashion senses. The girls have come up with their own unique ways of expressing their individual tastes and have special hand-made tops with two separate necklines that each reflect their own styles. Abby and Brittany will even wear pants that have separate colored legs and different shoes on their respective foot.
One of the most difficult challenges for the girls was learning how to deal with each other’s separate appetites. Abby and Brittany have had to learn to compromise when the other twin is hungry and to make sure they are both satisfied during meal time. Should they both be sitting down for a meal at the same time, one twin will hold the fork, while the other will be in charge of the knife. The girls then take it in turns, going bite for bite, until both have finished their food.
While the girls may look like they have got a well-choreographed routine mastered, it did take the Hansel twins a while to reach this point. Tasks such as crawling and walking started off as a struggle for the girls when they were young, and their development took longer than most toddlers’. Over time, Abby and Brittany were able to sync their movements and learned how to move simultaneously. It seems all their hard work paid off since they can swim, ride a bike, and even drive a car.
Two Athletes In One
The twins even went above and beyond with their abilities by taking on a number of activities many able-bodied individuals would struggle with. While they may have taken a while to learn to walk and crawl, their determination allowed them to achieve their goals. The same can be said for enjoying athletic sports, and the girls enjoy bowling, cycling, and softball. In fact, the girls were on their high school’s volleyball team, and have been praised by their classmates for never quitting.
It seems that the Hansel twins’ parents’ determination to push them outside their comfort zone worked because, on top of sports, they are also musically talented. Stunning their friends, parents, and even doctors, the girls have amazing piano skills, which is just another talent to add to their impressive repertoire. Since they were born, the girls have shown all kinds of miracles and, with Abby playing the right-hand parts, and Brittany taking charge of the left, they have developed incredible coordination and timing.
In regards to ever separating the twins, the idea has come up twice. The first was following the birth of the twins, but the parents rejected the idea immediately. Such a procedure was likely to kill or handicap the twins, and the risk was not worth it to the first-time parents. The idea was brought up once more when Brittany had caught pneumonia, leaving Abby bed-ridden, bored, and wishing to be separated. Such an idea left Brittany devastated, and Abby then promised they would never be apart.
While the girls have defied all medical odds and remained in relatively good health for 28 years, they have faced a number of medical concerns and undergone numerous operations. Shortly after they were born, they underwent surgery to remove their third arm, and have also needed surgery to stop unnecessary spinal growth, correct scoliosis, and expand their chest cavity. Nevertheless, doctors are still yet to find congenital heart defects or organ abnormalities in the girls, who are just one of four documented sets of conjoined twins to survive into adulthood.
During the 2006 TLC special, Joined for Life: Abby and Brittany Turn 16, viewers watched how the Hensel twins conquered teenage challenges and dealt with social issues in high school. The show also filmed one of the biggest milestones for the girls, which was taking their driving license. As expected, the girls had to work as a team to operate the vehicle, each controlling the steering wheel with one arm each. However, it was considered that each twin took the test and they were given two separate licenses.
Need For Speed
At first thought, many would believe that driving is out of the question for conjoined twins. Considering each twin is unable to feel sensation on the other side of their body, it could be seen as being too dangerous, or not even possible. However, just like many other times in their lives, Abby and Brittany proved others wrong, also expressing in unison, “I think we’re good drivers.” The girls work as a team, with Abby taking control of the gas, while her sister operates the turn signal.
Attitude Is Everything
The most important thing the girls have achieved is always having a great mindset and consistently bringing good vibes to every step of their journey. This has allowed them to live out normal lives as best they can and has even allowed them to go to Bethel University in St. Paul and develop a great circle of friends. All their friends admire the twins for their positive outlook on life, which was also portrayed well to their reality show’s viewers.
The Art Of Compromise
If you’re someone who grew up with siblings, then you know the difficult challenges and compromises you had to make when growing up. For a good part of childhood, you can’t stand to be in the same household as them. As for the Hansel twins, who are in a different situation to most, they rarely argue and have only had the occasional fight. Abby explained, “When it comes to decisions, there are compromises we have to make… We want to work it out so each of us is happy.”
From the day they were born, the Hensel twins have grown up in abnormal circumstances. However, even with their medical condition and their constant media attention, they have grown up to have what most of us would consider to be a normal life. Much of this is thanks to their parents who always instilled in their girls the importance of having values and also the importance of pursuing all their dreams. From day one, the twins have continued to surprise and impress their parents, who have always been their biggest believers.
When it came to their education, Abby and Brittany once again excelled. As with everything else, they had different subject preferences but learned to work together. Abby always loved math, and Brittany enjoyed writing, but they worked on each other’s strengths and weaknesses to achieve success. The girls were even able to type out emails and assignments without even having to utter a word to one another, but just by anticipating the other’s feelings. However, the girls claimed that they could not read each other’s minds.
Even when it came to college, the twins were never going to take the easy way out. Abby and Brittany could have chosen not to go to college, or taken their courses online but, just as they had always done, they were ready to take on all challenges. They grew up constantly beating the odds, and college was going to be no different. Even with a demanding schedule, curriculum, and change in lifestyle, the girls were ready to take on this next chapter in their lives.
Taking On College Together
In 2008, just after they graduated from high school, the girls enrolled at Bethnal University. The girls were ready to take on their next challenge and chose to major in education. Initially, the twins wanted to take separate concentrations within the major, but the school considered there to be too much coursework for this to be a possibility. Nevertheless, the girls worked extremely hard during university and graduated in 2012, each receiving their own diploma. The girls once again beat the impossible with their accomplishments.
Seeing The World
The excited graduates chose to travel to Europe with some of their college friends upon completing their degree. Due to their medical history, traveling is no easy task for the twins, and they need to bring prescriptions with them for anything they could need. When they travel, the girls fly with two separate passports, but only book one seat on the flight. Wherever the girls go, they also have to deal with the big crowds and the unnecessary rude reactions. The girls, however, have learned to take it in stride.
Leaving The Nest
The next adventure the girls had planned when they returned from Europe was to move out of their parents’ home. While this was going to pose a whole set of unique challenges, the twins wanted to prove they were capable of living independent lives as adults. Just as many people in their 20s plan to leave their parents’ home, the girls proved that they were no different. Regardless of the hardships they may face, the girls know they always have each other for support.
Moving On Up
The girls moved into their own apartment, which marked a huge milestone for the twins. Moving from their parents’ home, however, did not come without any obstacles for Abby and Brittany, and the ordeal around moving was exhausting for the twins. Just as most young adults would understand, leaving your parents’ home and living alone can be a hard move. For the conjoined twins, they had to transition to living away without any help or support from their parents, which they had had their whole lives.
Teaching With Teamwork
The girls graduated from high school, graduated college, and moved out of their parents’ home. They were just like any teenagers who transitioned into adulthood, and like most young adults, it was time to get a job. The girls, of course, managed to do so and are now 5th-grade teachers at Mounds View Public Schools. The girls work as a team by teaching in their own dynamic way but also working off of one another, which makes for a productive teaching environment.
Clearing The Air
Unsurprisingly, the task of teaching for the twins can be problematic. 5th graders are unlikely to have ever seen conjoined twins before, and it was suspected that the children might have acted inappropriately around their new teachers. To combat this, the girls held an open forum to answer any questions the kids may have when they arrived at the school. This seemed to work in their favor since, following the forum, the twins have not had a single issue with the kids and have rather been an inspiration.
Two Teachers, One Paycheck
The girls have managed to combat all social challenges they have faced growing up as conjoined twins, but they are dealing with one issue. That is in regards to their salary since the girls are only compensated with the salary of one teacher. Regardless of the fact they have two separate degrees and teaching qualifications, they manage just one class at a time, so are only paid one salary. At this point, the girls are content with their position but may choose to renegotiate this later on.
Dreams For The Future
The Hensel twins have achieved the same as most people their age and, like most, have expressed their desire to settle down one day and get married. In regards to having children, it is anatomically possible for the twins but has posed many inappropriate questions and rumors in the media. In 2010, Brittany’s false engagement circulated the internet, which the twins laughed off claiming it was “a dumb joke.” Right now, however, the girls are focused on their teaching, so romance is not a concern for them.