Abigail Loraine "Abby" Hensel and Brittany Lee Hensel (born March 7, 1990) are American dicephalic parapagus twins, meaning that they are conjoined twins, each of whom has a separate head, but whose bodies are joined. They are highly symmetric for conjoined twins, giving the appearance of having just a single body without marked variation from normal proportion. In fact, several vital organs are doubled up; each twin has a separate heart, stomach, spine, lungs, and spinal cord.
Each twin controls her half of their body, operating one of the arms and one of the legs. This means that as infants, the initial learning of physical processes that required bodily coordination, such as clapping, crawling, and walking, required the cooperation of both twins. While each is able to eat and write separately and simultaneously, activities such as running and swimming must be coordinated and alternate symmetrically. Other activities as diverse as brushing hair and driving a car require that each twin perform a sequence of separate actions that coordinate with the other.
Due to the curiosity that their condition generated, the twins' progress as they were growing up was covered in a number of popular media, including Life magazine and The Oprah Winfrey Show. At the age of 16, they gave an interview on The Learning Channel on December 17, 2006, in which they discussed aspects of their daily lives and plans for the future. They starred in their own Abby & Brittany reality series on TLC in 2012.
The twins were born in Carver County, Minnesota, to Patty, a registered nurse, and Mike Hensel, a carpenter and landscaper. They have a younger brother and sister. They were raised in New Germany, Minnesota, attended Lutheran High School in Mayer, and graduated from Bethel University in St. Paul in 2012.
The twins have a single body with separate heads and necks, a chest that is wider than normal, two arms, and two legs. At birth, they had a rudimentary arm between the bases of their necks attached to a shoulder blade at the back, being combined parts of Abby's left arm and Brittany's right arm. It was removed, leaving the shoulder blade.
Abby's head tilts laterally outward about 5 degrees to the right, while Brittany's tilts laterally at about 15 degrees to the left, causing her to appear shorter even when seated. Brittany's leg is in fact nearly two inches shorter than Abby's; and Brittany tends to stand and walk on tip-toe which has given her a significantly larger calf muscle than Abby. The continued growth of Abby's spine was surgically halted after Brittany prematurely stopped growing. At age 12, they underwent surgery at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare to correct scoliosis and to expand their chest cavity to prevent future difficulties with breathing.
Each twin manages one side of their conjoined body. The sense of touch of each is restricted to her body half; this shades off at the midsagittal plane such that there is a small amount of overlap at the midline. Stomach aches, however, are felt only by the twin on the opposite side. They are effective in cooperatively using their limbs when both hands or both legs are required. By coordinating their efforts, they are able to walk, run, swim, and ride a bicycle normally—all tasks that they learned at a normal speed. Together, they can type on a computer keyboard at a normal speed and drive a car. However, their disparate heights (Abby, 5 ft 2 in (1.57 m), is taller and longer of leg than Brittany, 4 ft 10 in (1.47 m)) led to difficulty in balancing a Segway, as shown in their 2012 reality series.
The twins have individual organs in the upper part of their body, while most of them located at or below the level of the navel are shared, the exception being the spinal cord.
- 2 heads
- 2 spines merging at the coccyx and joined at the thorax by sections of ribs. Surgery was employed to correct scoliosis.
- 2 completely separate spinal cords
- 2 arms (originally 3, but rudimentary central arm was surgically removed, leaving central shoulder blade in place)
- 1 broad ribcage with 2 highly fused sternums and traces of bridging ribs. Surgery was employed to expand the pleural cavities.
- 2 breasts
- 2 hearts in a shared circulatory system (nutrition, respiration, medicine taken by either affects both)
- 4 lungs with the medial lungs moderately fused, not involving Brittany's upper right lobe; three pleural cavities
- 1 diaphragm with well-coordinated involuntary breathing, slight central defect
- 2 stomachs
- 2 gallbladders
- 1 liver, enlarged and elongated right lobe
- Y-shaped small intestine, which experiences a slightly spastic double peristalsis at the juncture
- 1 large intestine (one colon)
- 3 kidneys: 2 left, 1 right
- 1 bladder
- 1 set of reproductive organs
- 2 separate half-sacrums, which converge distally
- 1 slightly broad pelvis
- 2 legs
Upon their birth, the twins' parents rejected the option to attempt surgical separation after hearing from doctors that it was not likely that both would survive the operation. As they grew and learned to walk and develop other skills, their parents confirmed their decision against separation, arguing that the quality of life for the surviving twin or twins living separately would be less than their quality of life as conjoined beings.
The twins both successfully passed their driver's license exams, both the written and driving tests. They had to take the tests twice, once for each twin. Abby controls the devices located to the right of the driver's seat; Brittany, those on the left. Together they control the steering wheel.
They both graduated from high school in 2008. They began college at Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minnesota, majoring in education. They had considered pursuing different concentrations within that major, but the volume of extra coursework was prohibitive. They graduated with Bachelor of Arts degrees in 2012.
In conversation, the twins are clearly distinct persons, with distinct likes and dislikes. Their preferences in food, clothing color, etc., differ. Some of their clothes are altered by their seamstress so that they have two separate necklines in order to emphasize their individuality. They will usually have separate meals, but sometimes will share a single meal for the sake of convenience (e.g. each taking a bite of the same hamburger). Abby is better at mathematics, and Brittany is better at writing. For tasks such as responding to email, they type and respond as one, anticipating each other's feelings with little verbal communication between them. In such cases as the latter, their choice of grammatical person is to use the first person singular out of habit when they agree, but when their responses do differ, they use their names in the third person singular.
There is some concern about the twins' ability to have continued good health, because only four known sets of conjoined twins who share an undivided torso and two legs have ever survived into adulthood, and most have congenital heart defects or other organ anomalies. None have shown up in their case. They intensely dislike being stared at or photographed by strangers while going about their private lives. In interviews for the Discovery Channel in 2006, they, then 16, said that they hoped to date, get married, and have children. They also stated that they hoped that by providing some information about themselves, they would be able to lead otherwise fairly typical social lives.
The twins appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show on April 8 and April 29, 1996. In April 1996, they were featured on the cover of Life under the caption "One Body, Two Souls", and their daily lifestyle was depicted in the corresponding article entitled "The Hensels' Summer". Life followed up with another story in September 1998. In 2002, they appeared in Joined for Life, a TV documentary by Advanced Medical Productions, distributed on the Discovery Health Channel and a 2003 follow-up, Joined at Birth. In 2003, an updated story of them at age 11 (filmed in 2001) was published in Time and again in Life. ABC TV also did a documentary called "Joined For Life". In 2006, Advanced Medical made another documentary, Joined for Life: Abby & Brittany turn 16, that discusses their adolescence, school, social life, and activities such as getting their driver's licenses. A UK television special followed in 2005 as part of the series Extraordinary People. They starred in the reality TV show Abby & Brittany that started in August 2012. Abby and Brittany: Joined for Life was shown by the BBC in the UK in May 2013, and covers the period from their finishing college to starting a part-time teaching job.
Documentaries and other television appearances include:
|First aired||Title||Distributor||Produced by|
|April 8, 1996||The Oprah Winfrey Show||King World Productions||Harpo Productions|
|March 27, 2003||Joined for Life||Discovery Channel||Advanced Medical Productions, American Broadcasting Company|
|December 17, 2006||Joined for Life: Abby and Brittany Turn 16||The Learning Channel||Advanced Medical Productions|
|February 19, 2007||Extraordinary People: The Twins Who Share a Body||Five (UK)||One North|
|August 28, 2012||Abby & Brittany||The Learning Channel|