Having a sister can be hard enough as it is. Now imagine you had to share everything with your sister…including your body. That’s what life is like every day for Minnesota sisters, Abby and Brittany Hensel. But despite being born conjoined, the sisters have become their people and proven that life is better together. Read on to learn about their incredible journey.
Born In 1990
The twins were born In rural Minnesota in 1990. Conjoined twins form in the very early weeks of pregnancy, sometimes even before the mother knows she’s pregnant. The Hansel twins are conjoined because a fertilized egg failed to separate inside their mother’s womb.
The twins may look like they share a complete body but in fact, they each have their hearts, lungs, spines, stomachs, esophagus, gallbladder, and kidneys. They do share a reproductive system, liver, rib cage, intestines, and circulatory system. From the waist down, all of their organs are shared. They were also born with a third arm but that was removed at birth.
They Have Separate Immune Systems
Despite sharing many of the same major organs, Abby and Brittany have separate immune systems. One of them can be healthy while the other one is sick. Brittany has had pneumonia twice in her life and Abby has never had it.
The twins both agree that being sick is one of the few times they wish they were separated. When Brittany was ill as a child, Abby remembers wishing to be separated after being bored and restless while confined in the same bed as her sick sister. Brittany became so upset by the thought she cried uncontrollably until Abby assured her she wouldn’t leave her side.
They’re Very Active
Since the twins share the majority of their bodies, they’ve had to learn to work together to make it move. Thankfully they’ve had a lot of practice. The twins display an astonishing sense of coordination, each using one arm to perform tasks, including playing the piano, bowling, swimming, and other sports.
Abby, the right twin can’t feel anything on the left side of the body while Brittany, the left twin, can’t feel anything on her right side. Abby’s in charge of operating the right arm and leg while Brittany takes charge of the left arm and leg. Together they accomplish whatever they set their minds to.
Shared Body, Different Personalities
Despite sharing a body, Brittany and Abby are their people. They have distinct and individual personalities. Abby prefers pink and girly clothes and shoes while Brittany is more of a tomboy. The twins have had different haircuts and hair colors, and have even gone as far as having their clothing tailored to have different necklines and hemlines.
Thankfully the twins have learned to compromise daily about what to wear and how to look. They’ve admitted to swapping off who chooses what to wear each day to keep one another feel happy and unique.
They Plan To Get Married
Both Brittany and Abby remain optimistic that they will one day get married and have a family. Although neither of them has found Mr. Right yet, they both feel there are two guys out there who will love them the way they are.
Scientists have cautioned the girls about how difficult this step might be in their lives as they share a reproductive system. But the two have worked through everything else together in their 27 years of life and never let any other roadblocks deter them from achieving their goals. They will be sure to figure this out as well.
They Were Raised Right
Abby and Brittany’s parents have also encouraged them to be their people despite their physical limitations. “When children ask the girls if they have two heads, they say they don’t, but that each has their head. That’s what we have encouraged them to do, to develop their individuality as much as possible,” explains their mom, Patty.
Brittany and Abby’s parents have carefully raised them to be their people. When one girl did something wrong, they were sure to scold only one, not the other. It must have been difficult at times but it’s their strong upbringing that’s helped them become successful adults.
On the day the twins were born, doctors told their parents they probably wouldn’t even last the night. Thankfully they did and way surpassed where they were “supposed” to be physically and intellectually. Conjoined twins are extremely rare, to begin with. About one in every 40,000 babies worldwide is born conjoined.
It’s even rarer that both Abby and Brittany survived. Only one percent of twins born conjoined survive more than a day. Brittany and Abby’s parents were given the option to separate the twins but declined. Doctors insisted it would be near impossible for both to survive the extensive procedures necessary to break them apart.
They’re The Rarest Dicephalus Twins In The World
Dicephalous twins are a rare form of twin where two heads sit alongside one another on a shared torso. Dicephalous means “two-headed.” In most cases, the second head isn’t fully formed or one or both of the babies is born stillborn, making Brittany and Abby extremely rare.
Dicephalic twins make up only eleven percent of all the conjoined twins in the world. There are only three reported cases of dicephalic twins surviving into adulthood. Brittany and Abby are the only ones to have ever survived in the United States. There are two other cases, one in Italy and one in Turkey.
They’re Cover Models
When they were just six years old, the twins appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. This was their first step out into the spotlight. It led to their worldwide fame and later that year landed them on the cover of Life under the caption “One body, two souls.”
They’ve also done television specials for the Discovery Channel, TLC, and the BBC. In 2012 they even earned their series on TLC called Abby & Brittany. It showcased their everyday lives, their friends, their families and offered an inside glimpse at who they are. It was one of the network’s most popular shows that year.
Simple Tasks Are Difficult
The twins have to think about everything together – what to wear, how to do their hair and makeup, where to go, how to get there, and more. They can’t simply get up in the morning and do whatever they feel like. They must first consult one another. They’ve both admitted to not sleeping overly soundly due to the other moving around or making noise.
In their TLC special they both spoke about the difficulties of getting ready in the morning. Neither considered themselves a morning person due to the lack of sleep and strenuous routine just to get out the door.
Separate But Together
Not only do the twins have distinct personalities they also excel in different subjects. Abby prefers mathematics while Brittany enjoys writing. Abby is very outspoken while Brittany is quieter and laid back. Overall the girls’ interests thankfully overlap frequently. They both love volleyball, going to the movies, riding bikes, and playing musical instruments.
For the moments when they can’t agree, they’ve learned to work together and compromise. “When it comes to decisions, there are compromises we have to make,” says Abby. “We take turns. We want to work it so each of us is happy and we find a happy medium.”
Their Futures Are Uncertain
Although Brittany and Abby have beat all odds, their futures are still a bit uncertain. Female conjoined twins have a longer life expectancy and overall healthier lifestyle than male conjoined twins but they still face complications. Seventy percent of the world’s conjoined twins are female. Initially, Brittany and Abby’s doctors didn’t expect them to live beyond 24 hours.
They’ve had several surgeries to fix complications to their spine but overall maintained a very healthy body. Doctors still fear the girls might face some heart problems or other medical complications. Despite all that, doctors say the girls are “extraordinary” and “wonderfully blessed.”
Great Minds Think Alike
Not only are the twin’s physical movements in harmony, but their thoughts are also. When they write emails they respond as one person rather than as individuals. The twins are also able to anticipate one another’s feelings with little to no verbal communication.
For tasks such as responding to email, they type and respond as one, anticipating each other’s feelings with little verbal communication between them. This is a common attribute to conjoined twins. Their close friend says, “They finish each other’s sentences — they both know what the other is thinking and what she is going to say. It makes me smile all the time.”
They Work To Educate Others
When the twins turned sixteen, they agreed to let TLC into their home to film a special documentary on what their daily lives were like. The twins hoped that by sharing their lives and experiences, they would be able to educate others and in return live out normal social lives.
Although the twins aren’t huge fans of the press or being in the spotlight they decided to do the show to help break down preconceived ideas of what it was like to be conjoined. Offscreen they enjoy the comforts of their quiet Minnesota farmhouse away from cameras and photographers.
They Prefer Privacy
Although the twins have participated in quite a few public television shows and stories, they’ve disappeared in recent years due to their preference to keep out of the spotlight. Growing up their parents thought it was best for them and their two younger siblings to avoid the public eye.
They grew up in a tight-knit Minnesota farm community where they wouldn’t be the constant center of attention. One of their biggest pet peeves is when people stop and stare, as well as take pictures. Abby and Brittany have no issues with posing for a photo op, except when it’s without their permission.
They Can Drive
The twins successfully passed their driver’s test when they were sixteen and transport themselves wherever they like. The girls had to take the written driving test twice as well as pass the supervised portion of the test two times in a row. Their mother, Patty, admitted to feeling a little unsure about their driving saying, “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?” To drive successfully, Abby controls everything to the right of the driver’s seat, while Brittany mans the left.
They Graduated College
Both girls graduated from Bethel University with a degree in education. Originally, both twins wanted to focus on different concentrations within their major, but the extra coursework proved to be too challenging. They’ve moved out on their own and live independent lives together. “We were raised to believe we could do anything we wanted to do, ” the twins explain.
They continue to surpass the expectations doctors, teachers and mentors have placed on them, year after year. They find the strength in each other to tackle any obstacle that might be tossed their way. They just want to live normal lives like everyone else.
They Travel The World
The girls have never let their physical restraints stop them. Together they’ve traveled the world with friends. Although they only need one plane ticket, they each have their passports. The girls went to Europe with their friends during their 2012 TLC special.
For the most part, they live completely normal lives — they hang out with friends, go to parties and even went to college, moved out of their parent’s house, and got jobs. They’re just your average twenty-something girl…almost. In the opening credits of their show, they both chime in to say “The most amazing thing about us is we are like everyone else.”
They Always Have Separate Cakes
While the girls are similar in a lot of ways, they also differ in their food preferences. They each have their stomach so they enjoy different types of cuisine and often don’t feel hungry at the same time. Each year, Brittany and Abby’s parents get them their birthday cakes.
The girls admit to occasionally sharing a meal if it’s something they both enjoy like hamburgers. It makes it easier for them to eat at the same time because they must help one another out with utensils and arm movements. They’ve learned to compromise when it comes to mealtime to eliminate chaos.
The twins are now 27 and work as elementary school teachers. They love working together because one can give the lesson while the other observes the fifth-grade class and answers questions. As of right now, the girls collect the salary of one person because they work together on virtually every task, however, they’re hopeful about their futures.
“As maybe experience comes in we’d like to negotiate a little bit, considering we have two degrees and because we can give two different perspectives or teach in two different ways. One can be teaching and one can be monitoring and answering questions,” said Brittany. “So in that sense, we can do more than one person,” she added.
The Oldest Conjoined Twins In History
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, one in every 200,000 live twin births worldwide are conjoined, though 40 to 60 percent are stillborn and 35 percent of those who survive only live for a day,” the Phoenix New Times reported. Ronnie and Donnie Galyon have defied all of the statistics.
Ronnie and Donnie were born in Dayton, Ohio on October 28, 1951, joined from the sternum to the groin. Since then, they have progressed through life in what can be deemed a scientific anomaly. Take the time and learn more about their unconventional life. It’ll be hard not to have a love for them.
The Start Of It All
Joined from the sternum to the groin, Ronnie and Donnie Galyon didn’t require a C-section for their birth. After their birth in 1951, according to the ward, the mother didn’t want them. She left the twins to be raised by their father Wesley and later on by their stepmother Mary.
The first two years of their lives were spent in and out of hospitals. Doctors were trying to determine if there was a way to separate the twins. Due to Ronnie and Donnie sharing one set of male organs, doctors concluded it would be best to leave them as they are.
The Unexpected Twins
What makes these twins more interesting is that their parents Eileen and Wesley Galyon weren’t even expecting twins. Donnie came out headfirst and was followed by Ronnie, who came out feet-first. The two of them were born with separate hearts and stomachs.
Ronnie and Donnie were each born with their own set of arms and legs. Due to the way they are connected at the groin, they’ve been forced to live face-to-face for the past six decades.
The Traveling Commodity
Since it was determined that the twins would be together for the remainder of their lives, decisions had to be made. Mr. Galyon wasn’t into the idea of showing off his children for the entertainment of others. However, when he found himself in financial trouble, that mindset changed.
The boys were already attracting attention everywhere they went without any effort. Once they turned four, they began traveling with their dad to be showcased in carnivals across the country.
The Circus Act
While today, sideshow acts are widely seen as taboo and offensive, this wasn’t the case back then. In the ’60s, human oddities were practically a staple in many American carnivals. This medium also served as a haven for those who didn’t feel accepted.
You have to imagine how difficult it must have been for Ronnie and Donnie. Granted, they were young, but they more than likely had to understand at a young age how misconstrued the world could be. Even if you didn’t ask, you could be dealt an unfavorable hand.
The Feeling Of Nonacceptance
When Ronnie and Donnie grew to the appropriate age of schooling, their father figured it would be best to give the school a try. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. School officials wouldn’t let the twins attend because they proved to be too much of a distraction to the other kids.
This wasn’t the case for them in the carnivals. They were treated like rock stars in that field. They made friends with “the smallest man in the world,” Little Pete, and Johan the Viking giant.
Supporting The Family
It appeared as if the family had just earned a new way of getting paid quality money. Ronnie and Donnie were more than just circus acts, they soon became the money makers in the family thanks to their condition. They made enough to support the whole family. Their parents had nine children in total.
“That was the only income. They were the breadwinners,” Jim, the youngest brother, said. The only issue is, how much longer were they going to be able to milk this lucrative business? As we mentioned earlier, sideshows are not as popular today as they were back then.
Taking The Act Elsewhere
Soon, showcasing different people at the circus started to become taboo in America which ran the options thin for the Galyon family. After all, the twins were their cash cow, so to miss out on all those funds would have put a hurting on their livelihood.
Once the politically correct backlash of the ’70s hit, performing live as ‘human freaks’ in the United States was endangered. As a result, Ronnie and Donnie toured Latin America. They appeared with Circo Union in Mexico.
The Ups And Downs
Being famous and well-received where you’re supposed to be is one thing, but when you have to appear in public not looking like the usual status quo, things get tough. Being rejected from school was only the start of their struggle.
The twins would also get harassing phone calls in the middle of the night. People would stop what they were doing just to give Donnie and Ronnie an earful of harmful speech. All because they defied the odds and remained alive when statistics wrote them off.
Fearing For Their Safety
Things got so bad at one point, Ronnie and Donnie had to get the local authorities involved. The twins retired from the sideshow business in 1991 and ended up buying a home in Dayton, Ohio with the money they had earned.
The local kids would peer into their windows and spit on the glass. This is when the twins became frightened and decided to call the cops for help. Their younger brother Jim recalled, “the sheriff told the whole school in no uncertain terms that the behavior would not be tolerated and that they would be prosecuted.”
Battling Each Other
Living with someone face-to-face for your whole doesn’t sound all that fun. No matter if that’s your twin or not, things have a high potential of getting chippy. There are indeed disputes that Ronnie and Donnie have gotten into with one another.
The two have made various compromises, but that isn’t enough to keep the peace with someone attached to you 24/7. The twins used to get into physical fights on top of verbal brawls. Due to a medical issue, the conflicts lessened…
A Bloody Scare
Yes, the feuds used to come around often between Ronnie and Donnie. Soon, they came few and far between after they started taking blood thinners. They realized things could get fatal if they kept up the physical fights once they began the blood thinners.
They had a huge scare in 2009. Ronnie developed blood clots in his lungs as a result of a virus. It was so bad that it spread to Donnie as well. Both of them were weakened due to this and had to be hospitalized. They needed persistent care afterward.
Subjects Of Study
J. David Smith wrote a book in 1988 called Psychological Profiles of Conjoined Twins. The book went over some of the in-depth tests that were conducted on the twins. One thing that was discovered was that even though they have average IQs, they seem slower due to a lack of education.
That isn’t that big of a deal, but another issue was discovered. Ronnie and Donnie have bouts of anger also. This has gone on since they were young and often what led to the fights they would get in.
Consequences Of The Anger
According to the book David Smith wrote, “it was more difficult to assert individual independence as a teenager when joined physically to a counterpart.” It’s already hard enough to express yourself individually in your teenage years, so this must have been tough.
The anger got so hot one time, it cost one of the twins a healthy foot. When they were just 14, Donnie broke his foot after kicking a trailer due to rage.
Enter World New Weekly
Not only were Ronnie and Donnie in books, but the tabloids placed them in their papers as well. The now old World New Weekly did a feature on the twins before they went out of business. They called them The Battling Galyons.
They earned that nickname from World New Weekly because of the arguments the twins would get in. They ended up picturing them with rifles because they felt one of them might shoot the other one day. It was a joke, but ironically, one brother blackened the other brother’s eye.
The Logistics That Come With Being Conjoined
Because they are conjoined, you’re probably wondering just how things like voting, social security, and other aspects of life are handled. For starters, they have to cast two votes and have separate social security numbers.
Something Ronnie and Donnie enjoys doing is traveling outside of America. Thankfully, they only need one passport for that. Things could be worse for them, but the way their lives are set up now, they still get the appropriate help, and not everyone tries to pick on them.
Still Feel The Love
Yes, the twins have gone through some tough situations, but there are also two sides to the coin. Sometimes people with a big heart are there to help. A Christian Youth Group built an added space at their brother’s home for Ronnie and Donnie after they were released from the hospital after the scare.
The twins were starting to age, so they were beginning to need the extra help anyway. Living with their brother and his wife seemed like the best possible idea for them moving forward.
Kindness All Around
Not only was the Christian Youth Corps kind enough to build that addition to the twin brothers’ home, others are kind to Ronnie and Donnie as well. Strangers have been noted to take the time to get to know the twins. Some even go out of their way to pay their restaurant bills.
And although we mentioned how Ronnie and Donnie used to fight all the time, they are each other’s best friends. Over the years they have been offered different separation procedures but have refused them all.
Adapting To Growing Pains
You have to imagine how tough growing up must have been for Ronnie and Donnie was as far as health issues go. The thing is, the older they got, the worse their matters became. They have to take more precautions than usual these days.
When walking, the twins have to take breaks. They also have started eating healthier, changing their diets. This is because digestive problems can leave them in the hospital for weeks. One of their close friends Glenn Kwiat said, “their goal has always been to live to be the oldest living Siamese twins.”
Becoming The Longest-living Conjoined Twins
As of 2014, Ronnie and Donnie officially became the longest-living conjoined twins in history! They turned 63 that year, beating out the record-holders who passed away at the age of 63. They celebrated this milestone by going to Disney World.
On that day, they went to breakfast at the Golden Nugget Cafe where all the staff greeted them with open arms and kisses. The cafe owner said, “I love them because they’ve taken something that most of us couldn’t deal with and they are like kings and beautiful people.”
What’s New With Ronnie And Donnie?
Their brother Jim acknowledged that beating the record of longest-living conjoined twins was a dream Ronnie and Donnie wanted to see come to fruition. “It’s a lifelong dream, and they are loving it,” Jim said. Jim also said their good health has much to do with the specialized bed they were made in 2010. Before that bed, they had to sleep on the floor.
They are taking all the necessary steps to help prolong their life as long as they can. Jim’s wife Mary said, “a day doesn’t go by that I don’t hear ‘I love you’ and ‘Thank you.’ If you spend time around them, you can’t help but love them.” A touching story for twins who could have never made it out of the womb.