Twins Abby and Brittany Hensel of Minnesota are accomplished young adults who grew up fielding questions like "How did you get that way?" and "Do you have two heads?". They got asked these questions because of what they look like...
They got asked these questions because of what they look like — a single human figure with two arms and legs, two heads and necks, and a larger-than-average chest. Their large shared chest in fact holds two hearts, four lungs and two spines. Each twin controls one half of their shared body, including one arm and one leg, so they have to cooperate to do simple things like walking or clapping hands.
All of which might sound like quite a predicament... The positive side is that they can and do cooperate, moment by moment and day by day. As they grew up, they not only learned to walk and clap their hands, but also to ride bikes, play sports, type with two hands and play the piano. They went to school and then to university.
As children, they also learned how to deal with the frequently-asked questions. When asked "How did you get that way?", they would answer "God made us like this." And their answer to the question "Do you have two heads?" was "No." 1
It is a true story which many see as inspirational, even miraculous. What does their story have to tell us about the power that forms our bodies and ourselves, whether we call that power God, Goddess, or Nature?
The twins began surprising people the moment they came into the world, with their unusual combination of two heads, one torso, two legs and two complete arms. They also had a rudimentary third arm between their two necks. 2 A "baby with two heads" is what news media call twins like this, if they find out. The medical term is dicephalus parapagus. It happens, they weren't the first, but it's extremely rare.
The second surprise was that they didn't die within hours or days after birth, because that is what nearly always happens to dicephalus parapagus babies. 3
When doctors examined Abby and Brittany, they found that each twin had her own heart and lungs, as well as her own spine, complete with nerve tissue. Each twin's brain had a nervous system which connected to approximately half the shared body, with some cross-over. This means that the twin whose face was on the left — Brittany — also had the left arm and leg. The twin whose face was on the right — Abby — had the right arm and leg. If Abby and Brittany lived and grew, would they be able to coordinate their movements so as to crawl and walk? 4
Perhaps the biggest surprise about Abby and Brittany is that, as they got older, they began to coordinate very well. They learned to crawl and then walk at about the same age as average children, and later went on to ride a bike, play softball, and so on. 5
There are a number of things each can do without help from the other, e.g. write with pen and paper, use a mobile phone. 5 There are also certain things they could do separately, but choose to do together. For instance, they type together with two hands on a keyboard, 4 although there is nothing to stop each from typing with one hand, on a keyboard of her own. They play the piano together too. 4
Abby and Brittany graduated from Bethel University (Arden Hills) in 2012. They attended the graduation ceremony wearing two square academic caps, but only one gown. 4
Brittany and Abby have different likes and dislikes, and have to talk together about everyday decisions such as what clothes to wear. 5
Their mother taught them to think of themselves as individuals. If other children asked whether they had two heads, she encouraged them to say no, since each of them has her own head. 4
When the twins started to write emails, though, they often used the word "I" to mean both of them. 5
Abby and Brittany have a page on Facebook with pictures of themselves at various ages, active and cheerful. Also a not-so-cheerful picture of themselves as little girls, at a swimming pool. A boy around their own age is staring at them. He looks worried, and so do they. 6
There are also pictures of Nelson Mandela, and Charlie Chaplin. And a statuette of a womanly figure with two heads, perhaps a goddess. 6
As babies, Abby and Brittany had an operation to remove their rudimentary third arm. In childhood, Brittany suffered a lung infection (pneumonia) which did not affect Abby's lungs. At age 12, a developing problem with Brittany's breathing capacity was corrected by surgery to the twins' spines and chest cavity. 5
Dicephaly is the condition of a living organism with two heads. It occurs not only in humans, but in other animals as well. There are cases of two-headed snakes and two-headed tortoises, for instance. All dicephalic organisms seem to be produced by an incomplete twinning process. 7
Human dicephalus parapagus twins may be born with different numbers of arms. Sometimes there are four arms (two for each twin), sometimes there are only two, and sometimes there are three. If born alive, they usually die soon after birth, because vital organs such as heart, lungs and liver don't have sufficient function to support the two heads and the rest of the body. While survival to adulthood is considered exceptional in any form of dicephalus parapagus, it is comparatively more likely in cases where twins are born with three or four arms rather than two. 3 This is because the formation of additional arms (even if rudimentary) is associated with more development of twin internal organs in the chest. 5
The Italian twin brothers Giacomo and Giovanni Tocci, born between 1875 and 1877, were dicephalus parapagus twins with four arms and two legs altogether. Each brother controlled one leg. However the Tocci brothers never learned to walk, instead they moved about on all six limbs, or in a wheelchair. They survived to adulthood and married two women in 1904. 8
A recent paper in a Turkish paediatric journal gives a case history of twin girls conjoined like the Tocci brothers. The Turkish twins did not learn to walk at the same age as average children, but did begin walking at age 3, after going through a special program of exercises. 9
Here again, it was found that each twin controlled one leg. This, however, was not the main reason they had trouble walking. The chief difficulty was to do with the size of their shared body. It simply isn't easy for two child legs to hold up a torso with four arms as well as two heads. The centre of gravity is higher, which makes balancing more of a challenge. The Turkish journal mentions that after learning to walk, the twins went on (without further specialist help) to learn how to run and to climb stairs. At age 11, they were attending school and progressing normally. 9
Another, very different sort of two-headedness in human babies is the condition known as craniopagus parasiticus. In such a case, the heads of the two twins are joined directly together, and one twin has only a vestigial body while the other has a more developed body. The twin with the vestigial body is parasitic in the sense that he/she cannot feed or breath, but is kept alive by oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood from the other twin.
This was the condition of the Egyptian twins, Manar Maged (2004 to 2006) and Islaam Maged (2004 to 2005). 10 Manar and Islaam were separated by surgery, after Manar (the more complete twin) developed a life-threatening heart problem due to the strain of one heart supporting two heads. Everyone knew the separation would end the life of Islaam Maged, but without separation Manar's heart was expected to fail, which would have been the end for both the twins. 11
In a television documentary made when Abby and Brittany turned 16, their mother Patty Hensel mentions that she is often asked why they weren't surgically separated. 5
Operations to separate conjoined twins are sometimes successful, but can also be very dangerous. Many twins have lost their lives due to surgical separations that didn't work. In general, the more tissues and organs are shared, the more dangerous the surgery.
When Abby and Brittany were babies, doctors advised the family that a separation procedure would not be good for them. 2 5 Perhaps if the family had gone in search, they might have found other doctors with other opinions, and had some sort of operation done. Which the babies might not have survived. But the family didn't take that path.
When the twins were old enough to talk and reason, they didn't want to be separated. Having learned to coordinate their two hands and two legs, they didn't see the point of an operation which — if it didn't kill them — would leave each twin trying to get by with only one arm and only one leg. 4 5
As the 19th century tantric scholar and sadhaka, Śiva Candra Vidyārṇava observed: "Different diets have been prescribed in different cases, according to the nature of the disease." 12 This seems relevant, even though Śiva Candra wasn't referring specifically to conjoined twins, and even though "disease" may not be the most helpful term in relation to them. The relevant point is that a good doctor, like a good guru, does not take a one-size-fits-all approach, but considers the specific needs of each person.
Statement by a thoughtful blogger, author of the sceptical website "500 questions about God and Christianity"
Let's start with the inspirational twins Abby and Brittany Helsen. While in the womb, God or nature knitted them together in an amazing patchwork of organs and bones. The way these twins are joined, it smacks of design, almost as if someone carefully crafted their two bodies so that they could continue to operate in this way. 13
He then goes on to write of examples of conjoined twins who do not appear so well designed — twins to whom God or nature gave bodies which didn't work, including Manar and Islaam Maged.
He concludes that actually nature "has no intentions... doesn't create our bodies because she cares for us... plods along in ignorance, oblivious to her failures."
It's true that Nature can appear fallible, ignorant, plodding and uncaring... when she doesn't appear like a careful crafter of amazing works. Perhaps this means she has no intentions, as we humans understand intention... on the other hand, her ability to produce such a variety of complex living systems implies a process which is not simply random.
There seems to be a self-organising dynamic which often produces living beings both viable and marvellous, even if it cannot always do so.
An important question, is what attitude we humans are to take to the power that formed us all — whether we call that power God or Nature or Kālī or the Star Maker. Are we to blame her or honour her, for what she is, and for what we are?
Colin Robinson, December 2015
© Colin Robinson 2015
12 Woodroffe, J. (ed), Principles of Tantra — the Tantra-tattva of Śrīyukta Śiva Candra Vidyārnava Bhattacārya Mahodaya, Ganesh, Madas, 6th edition 1986, Volume I, page 186
27 Dec 2015
A fascinating story!
* * * * *
28 Dec 2015
Namaste....from someone who doesn't believe in chance or accidents.
A girl called Lali was born with one head and 2 faces in North India in 2014. This is a rare condition called cranio-facial duplication. All facial features are duplicated, apart from the ears (of which she has 2). Her parents feel that they -and their village- have been blessed. Lali is thought to be a reincarnation of the Goddess Durga.
A temple has been built, pilgrims and devotees visit the family for blessings.
The girl is healthy and like "any other child" in all other respects. Her parents have refused all suggestions of medical tests or interventions. They have no doubt that this "abnormal" birth is a divine deliberate, purposeful act.
* * * * *
Good to hear from you, and thank you for sharing the report about Lali. According to the India-based International Business Times, she was born in 2008, but died of a heart attack when two months old. A baby or babies with similar appearance were born in 2014 here in Australia. Parents gave each face a name, Hope and Faith. But they died 19 days after they were born.
* * * * *
30 December 2015
Now I am really confused….I came across Lali’s story some months ago while flicking through television channels.
The camera showed a walking / playing TODDLER, not a newborn baby. Her parents and other people were interviewed via an interpreter.
After receiving your email I searched Google as you may have done and found several sites indicating that a baby named Lali was born with 2 faces north of Delhi in 2008. One of those sites says she was considered a reincarnation of Ganesh, another favours Durga over the elephant-headed One. All sites agree that she soon died. They also agree that her family shielded her from media exposure.
Frontiers in Neuroscience posted that she died of heart failure aged 2 months.
I didn’t catch where the documentary re Lali (short for Lalita ?) the toddler was filmed but buildings and dress style seemed to indicate Bihar or West Bengal….not Haryana.
Also, some of the sites I googled showed photos of both parents.
They both look significantly different from the people interviewed in the documentary….unless the mother had put on a lot of weight and the father had aged rapidly ! Their Lali was not a first child but had older “normal” siblings.
The family didn’t seem to be media shy and I remember reflecting that the girl may well end up an accidental child exploitation victim.
As my daughter would say…."Go figure"!
Best wishes for a terrific new year.
* * * * *
It's possible. Wikipedia mentions a cat with two faces which lived for 15 years, which is the average age for a one-faced cat, even though two-faced cats usually die soon after birth. The cat was given the names Frank and Louie, and lived from 1999 to 2014... It was a friendly, confident animal with unusual appearance.
I suppose the reason animals and humans with two faces tend to die in infancy is similar to the reason that happens to two-headed ones — partial twinning of the head means more work for heart, lungs and liver, which they usually can't cope with. But if there are exceptions to that general rule among cats, presumably there could be exceptions among people as well.
>The family didn’t seem to be media shy and I remember reflecting that the girl may well end up an accidental child exploitation victim.
Hard to know where the line is between exploitation and a positive response to people's natural curiosity.
Happy new year
* * * * *
1 January 2016
The story of Abby and Brittany are extra-ordinary. It reminds us that whatever we achieve it is still too little in comparison to the creativity of the Creator. It may sound awkward to us, who generally take the world to see as they want to. But different people have come in this world and has undergone utmost torture in the hands of the general public. Such stories of Gods and Demons are there in all the holy books of the world and in all the religions. But living with them and knowing them has not been seen. We should understand that whatever we try to achieve and do there is a power which is more powerful and more creative than us. Take the example of the famous scientist Steven Hawking. A great man who has fought off all his curses to become the great scientist he is today. The world is full of wonders and we are just spectators to the wonders of the world. Thanks for sharing such an wonderful story with me.
* * * * *
Share your thoughts about this article with the rest of us. Email
Or use this form to send your email automatically *...
* This method will work if your browser handles "mailto" links. If we don't acknowledge your on-topic message, feel free to resend it another way!