Abby and Brittany Hensel became internationally famous with TLC’s 2012 reality show Abby & Brittany. The show portrayed the conjoined twins in a positive light, showing the world that despite their different appearances, they are just as capable and fun-loving as any other teen. Where they are now is quite stunning…
Life In The Spotlight
Although TLC’s Abby & Brittany wasn’t released until August 2012, the Hensel twins have been no strangers to the public eye, having appeared in popular media sources since the mid-90’s. Their first experience with fame came on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996, followed shortly by a cover feature in Life Magazine under the caption “One Body, Two Souls.” The article, titled The Hensels’ Summer, described the twins’ day-to-day life and was followed up just two years later.
While today the twins don’t remember too much about the time Oprah Winfrey invited them onto her show over twenty years ago, the rest of the world still does. Their appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show was really the first time the conjoined twins were exposed to such a large audience. Their story resinated with millions of Americans from all over the country and marked the beginning of a new chapter of fame, recognition, and popularity in the girls’ lives.
In 2002, the twins appeared on television for the first time in Joined For Life, a documentary created by Advanced Medical Productions and shown on the Discovery Health Channel, and again in a 2003 follow up called Joined At Birth. In 2003, Life, along with Time published an updated story of the twins at age 11. In 2006, TLC put out their first television special about the twins called Joined For Life: Abby and Brittany Turn 16, and in 2007, they appeared in the UK series, Extraordinary People.
Growing Up Together
Abby and Brittany were born in Carver County, Minnesota to Patty, a registered nurse, and Mike Hensel, a carpenter and landscaper. They grew up with a younger brother and sister in New Germany, Minnesota. Their childhood was full of struggles and challenges. The simplest of tasks that other children take for granted were extremely difficult for the conjoined twins to master. Because each twin only has control of half of their shared body, even crawling took a while to perfect.
Double Birthday Surprise
On March 7th, 1990, two beautiful babies came into this world with just one body. During Patty Hensel’s pregnancy, pre-natal scans had shown just one baby. So when Patty gave birth to Dicephalus conjoined twins, it came as a huge shock to both parents. The twins had just a one in thirty million chance of living past the first twenty-four hours and the option of separation was quickly taken out of the equation because their body was so closely linked.
Make no mistake about it – Abby and Brittany’s story is nothing short of remarkable. It was clear as crystal though early on in their lives that it would be medically impossible to successfully separate them. However, where the Hensel twins were unable to have such a successful feat performed on them, other conjoined twins were much more fortunate. On many occasions, separations have often costed the life of at least one twin, but there have been numerous success stories where both have survived…
Meet Kendra & Maliyah
One of the most notable successful separations in recent memory came a few years ago when conjoined twins Kendra and Maliyah Herrin underwent surgical separation. They became the first set of conjoined twins ever to be separated while sharing a kidney. In order to successfully complete the procedure, Kendra kept the kidney they had once shared, while Maliyah received dialysis until she received a kidney from a donor. Of course, this isn’t the way that Abby and Brittany’s story was going to go.
They Shared A Liver, Pancreas & Intestines
Another incredible case that was successful against all the odds involved a pair of conjoined twins from the Dominican Republic. Maria and Teresa Tapia’s hopes of separating were extremely slim as they were attached by their lower chests and abdomens. This made them omphalopagus, which meant that they shared a liver, a pancreas and even part of their small intestine. However, when they were just a year and a half old, the twins were successfully separated.
Not Everything Is Shared
The Hensel twins’ parents always made an effort to instill in their children a sense of individualism and independence, pushing both Abby and Brittany to develop their own personalities and become their own person. They have also pushed the twins to step outside their comfort zones, and try new things, whether it’s a new sport or musical instrument. Discipline has proved rather difficult for the parents of the twins, considering it’s not exactly fair to punish both sisters for something only one of them did.
Twins are formed from one of two ways. Either a woman releases two eggs instead of one, or she produces one egg which goes on to divide after fertilization. Conjoined twins are formed when a woman produces a single egg which doesn’t separate after fertilization. The embryo begins to grow and develop and begins to divide into identical twins during the first weeks following conception but the process is cut short, leaving a partially divided egg which develops into a conjoined fetus.
Sharing Is Caring
Abby and Brittany have two separate hearts, two pairs of lungs, two spines which connect to a shared pelvis, two esophagi, three kidneys, one ribcage, one liver, a semi-shared nervous system and a fully-shared circulatory system. From their waist down, everything is shared including the reproductive system, intestines and bladder. Each twin can only feel sensations on their respective sides of their body. Abby and Brittany were actually born with three arms but the third arm was surgically removed shortly after birth.
The Price Of Fame
After their appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show at the age of six, the twins lived out somewhat normal lives for ten years until TLC took on their story in 2006. Since then, the twins have gained a fair share popularity, often being recognized in public. As a friend of the twins put it, “Everywhere they go, they get the stares.” While the twins appreciate a friendly hello from fans, they really can’t stand when people stop and stare or take photos without asking permission.
Teamwork Is Key
Abby and Brittany are conjoined twins with a rare medical condition called dicephalic parapagus. The twins share a single body with separate heads and necks. Each twin controls one side of their conjoined body. This means that even the most basic of physical tasks like walking, running, riding a bicycle, or swimming need to be well-rehearsed cooperative efforts. The twins have always welcomed new challenges though, and continue to live normal active lives, working together every step of the way.
The Original Hiltons
Before Abby and Brittany, there was Daisy and Violet Hilton. These British conjoined twins were born in 1908. Like the Hensel twins, these sisters shared everything and were always in the spotlight, traveling Europe and the United States from a young age and eventually ending up in the vaudeville and American burlesque circuits in the 1920s and 1930s. Later in life, both sisters married gay men, a move which many believed to have been a publicity stunt. The twins died just before their 61st birthday.
Just one in every 200,000 live births results in a set of conjoined twins. Once born, their chances of survival are between 5 and 25 percent. The Hensel girls are also the rarest form of conjoined twins, the result of a single fertilized egg failing to separate. In fact, upon birth, Abby and Brittany’s parents were told their babies wouldn’t survive 24 hours. 27 years later here they are, living happy and healthy lives, and proving just how extraordinary they truly are.
Sadly, about 40 to 60 percent of conjoined twins are stillborn at birth and 35 percent don’t make it past their first 24 hours. Conjoined twins are always of the same gender, and for an unknown reason, females have a much better survival rate. One of the first ever documented cases of conjoined twins dates all the way back to the year 1100 in Biddenton, County of Kent, England. Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst were born as conjoined twins and lived to be 34 years old.
Experiencing Sickness Alone
While Abby and Brittany Hensel may share vital organs, they actually will get sick independent of one another. For example, Brittany once suffered a pretty severe childhood pneumonia while Abby remained completely healthy. As a matter of fact, when Brittany was feeling too sick to take her medication, Abby even tried taking the medication to cure her sister. Such sisterly love these two share! The only exception to this strange phenomenon is stomach aches, which are felt in the opposite twin’s stomach.
One Body, Two Walks
Despite having lived attached to one another for 27 years, the conjoined twins are two entirely separate people with different preferences with regards to food, clothes, and even sleep schedules. In addition, each twin each has her own distinctive walk, which can appear as a slight limp. Brittany has the tendency to walk a bit more on her toes while Abby has more of a flat gait. This difference has caused Brittany’s calf muscle to be slightly more developed and muscular.
Growing up with siblings can be challenging enough living in separate rooms, let alone sharing a body. Abby and Brittany have learned to live and function together on a daily base, rarely arguing, despite having two entirely separate personalities. The twins’ mother has described Abby as energetic and someone who enjoys being in charge, even stating that growing up she wanted “to rule the whole house.” Abby is also very outspoken and enjoys hanging out at home, while Brittany, is happy-go-lucky, soft-spoken and enjoys going out.
Twice The Style
It is no surprise that with separate personalities comes separate fashion senses. Whether its clothes, shoes, or accessories, Abby and Brittany Hansel have discovered a number unique ways to express their own individual tastes and look great while doing so! The twins have special hand-made tops with two separate necklines, each reflecting their respective styles. Sometimes the girls will wear pants with two separately colored legs or even different shoes on each foot. There is certainly no shortage of creativity with these two!
One of the more difficult challenges for Abby and Brittany has been adapting to two entirely separate appetites. If one twin wants to eat before the other twin is hungry, a compromise has to be made in order for both sisters to be equally satisfied. When they sit down for a meal, they will eat from two separate plates, one twin holding the fork and the other holding the knife. When eating, they take turns, going bite for bite until both twins have finished.
What now appears as well-choreographed routine efforts, once took the Hensel twins quite a bit of time to master. A big struggle for the girls at a young age was learning to crawl and walk. Although it took the Hensel twins a bit longer than most toddlers, they eventually were able to sync their movements and learn to move symmetrically and simultaneously. Fast-forward a few years and the twins can now swim, ride a bike, drive a car, and perform lots of other complex tasks.
Two Athletes In One
While tasks such as clapping, crawling, and walking were once a challenge for Abby and Brittany, the twins have now exceeded expectations and taken on a number of activities which are difficult even for able-bodied individuals. The twins are athletic, enjoying bowling, cycling, softball and swimming. They were even on their high school’s volleyball team. A friend once praised their efforts in an interview, sharing that they never quit and never wanted to be treated different from anyone else on the team.
On top of athletic, we can also add musically talented to the twins’ impressive repertoire. Abby and Brittany have dazzled friends and family and left doctors puzzled with their amazing piano skills. Considering that most conjoined twins don’t survive into adulthood, Abby and Brittany’s special talents are nothing short of miraculous. With Abby playing the right-hand parts and Brittany taking the left hand parts, the girls are able to demonstrate incredible coordination and timing when they make music. Is there anything these girls can’t do?
The idea of separating the conjoined twins has only come up twice. The first time was following the twins’ birth, and was quickly rejected by their parents. Because a separation procedure would likely kill or permanently handicap one of the twins, the risk was simply not worth it. The second time was after Brittany had fallen ill with pneumonia as a child and Abby, bed-ridden and bored, claimed she wanted to separate. Brittany then cried terribly and Abby promised her they would never part.
Although the twins have remained in good health, they have had numerous operations and medical concerns throughout their lives. Shortly after birth, they underwent an operation to remove a third arm, and have also needed surgery to stop unnecessary spinal growth, correct scoliosis, and expand their chest cavity. While there have only been four sets of conjoined twins like the Hensel’s who have survived into adulthood, doctors remain optimistic as they have yet to find congenital heart defects or organ abnormalities.
In the 2006 TLC special, Joined for Life: Abby and Brittany Turn 16, we watched the Hensel twins conquer typical teenage challenges and navigate through social issues in high school. One of the biggest milestones featured in the show was the twins taking their drivers license test for the first time. Although they operate the vehicle as a team, with each twin controlling the steering wheel with one arm, the twins each took the test and received two separate licenses.
Need For Speed
One might think that driving would surely be out of the question for Abby and Brittany, considering that each twin is unable to feel sensation on opposite sides of their body. But in reality, the girls know what they’re doing behind the wheel. “I think we’re good drivers,” the girls said in unison during a clip from the 2012 reality show. When they hit the road, Abby takes control of the gas while Brittany operated the turn signal. Both girls work together to steer.
Attitude Is Everything
Abby and Britney have truly done their best to live out normal lives, bringing good vibes and a great mindset with them every step of the way. The twins attended college at Bethel University in St. Paul where they took classes together, studied together, and shared a big circle of close friends, all of whom admire the twins for their incredibly positive outlook on life. Their contagious, good attitude will surely follow them wherever they choose to take their lives.
The Art Of Compromise
One of the most difficult challenges siblings is getting along, especially during childhood and adolescence. Just about every brother or sister has gone through phases of days or weeks where they simply can’t stand each other. Fortunately for the Hensel twins, they rarely argue and almost never fight. In an interview, Abby stated, “When it comes to decisions, there are compromises we have to make… We want to work it out so each of us is happy and we find a happy medium.”
The Hensel twins are a remarkable case of kids growing up under extremely abnormal circumstances, with their medical condition as well as a constant media presence, and ending up with what we would consider to be very normal and fulfilling lives as they enter young adulthood. This is all thanks to their parents, who always tried to instill within them wholesome values and encourage them to pursue their dreams. Abby and Brittany continue to astonish their mom and dad, who have believed in them from day one!
Abby and Brittany Hensel have always excelled in school. From an early age they learned how to work together and play to each others strengths and weaknesses. For instance, Abby has always loved math while Brittany has enjoyed writing. Perhaps the most impressive of their abilities, the girls are able to type out emails and assignments without verbal communication because they can anticipate each other’s feelings. Although the twins have claim they cannot read each others’ minds, we have our suspicions.
While Brittany and Abby could have chosen to either not go to college at all, or take only online courses, they have never been the type to opt for the easy way out. They’ve spent their whole lives beating the odds and welcoming challenges so why should a college education be any different? They knew that, no matter what, they were going to go to college, even if that meant challenging themselves to a difficult schedule, curriculum, and overall change in lifestyle.
Taking On College Together
After graduating high school in 2008, our favorite conjoined twins moved on to their next challenge at Bethel University, where they majored in education. Initially, the girls considered picking separate concentrations within the major but the school wouldn’t allow for the excessive amount of coursework. Abby and Brittany worked extremely hard in college and graduated in 2012, receiving two separate diplomas for their efforts. Time after time, these smart and talented sisters accomplish the impossible. We wonder what’s next for them!
Seeing The World
After college, the girls traveled with some college friends to Europe. Because of their complex medical history, traveling is not a simple task. They needed to bring along prescriptions for anything they would potentially need. The girls flew with separate passports but only purchased one seat on the flight. While traveling and sightseeing, the girls learned to deal with big crowds of people and their sometimes-rude reactions to conjoined twins. While annoying, the girls have learned to take everything in stride and refuse to let something ruin a whole day.
Leaving The Nest
Upon returning from their Europe vacation, Abby and Brittany began preparations to move out of their parents’ house, a whole knew adventure for girls with its own unique set of challenges. As the twins get older, they continue to prove that they are more than capable of taking on life as independent, mature adults. Living away from home will definitely not be an easy task but the girls are ready to take on anything and support each other through every endeavor.
Moving On Up
Moving into their first apartment of their own marked a huge milestone for Abby and Brittany, but of course the move didn’t come without a fair share of difficulties and struggles. For starters, moving in itself can be a toiling and physically exhausting ordeal for anyone, let alone conjoined twins. In addition, the girls transitioned to a long term living situation where they were without the help and support of their loving and caring parents for the first time ever.
Teaching With Teamwork
Abby and Brittany are now 5th grade teachers at Mounds View Public Schools. Teaching, like everything in their lives, is all about teamwork. Both twins teach in their own dynamic way and they work off of one another. One advantage of having conjoined teachers is that they can answer two separate questions at the same time. They also have an extra pair of eyes to spot any disruptive behavior and ensure that their classroom is a productive environment. We bet nothing gets by this duo!
Clearing The Air
As you could imagine, teaching elementary school could be a struggle for Abby and Brittany. Children, especially, are not used to seeing conjoined twins. Concerns arose that the kids would behave inappropriately around the girls. When the twins arrived at the school, they held an open forum to answer any questions the kids might have. After the open forum, the girls began teaching and haven’t had any issues since. As teachers, the girls serve as examples for the kids, proving that they can overcome any challenge.
Two Teachers, One Paycheck
The one issue that the conjoined twins hope to address in the coming years is their salary. Together, the girls possess two separate degrees and two separate teaching certificates. However, because they can only manage one classroom at a time, they are only compensated with the salary of one teacher. After a few more years of experience, the twins would like to try to renegotiate. But for now, the girls are content knowing they are living out their dream and making a difference.
Dreams For The Future
The Hensel twins have expressed their desire to one day settle down, get married, and have children, which is entirely anatomically possible, and has prompted a whole slew of inappropriate questions, speculations, and rumors from the media. In 2010, a false report of Brittany’s engagement circulated the internet. When asked about the rumor, the twins laughed it off, claiming it was just “a dumb joke.” For the time being, the twins aren’t too concerned with marriage or children but who knows what the future holds!