Doctors feared conjoined twins Kendra and Maliyah Herrin wouldn’t survive after they were born sharing an abdomen, pelvis, liver, kidney and large intestine.
The sisters are now 17 and thriving, following an unprecedented 26-hour operation that left them each with one leg when they were aged four.
Now, a new BBC Three documentary shows Kendra – who kept their only kidney – and Maliyah going about their daily lives like any other teenager.
‘When people first hear our story, they like to ask a lot of questions,’ they said.
‘But simply we feel like we’re the same as everybody else, we just have a few things that are a little different.’
Kendra Herrin (left) and Maliyah (right) on their first day of school last fall, when they started as juniors
The twins were born fused together at the torso, sharing an abdomen, pelvis, liver, kidney, large intestine and two legs. Pictured: The pair as toddlers
Thriving: Kendra and Maliyah turned 17 in February, 13 years after their ‘cut apart’ day
They were born conjoined in Salt Lake City, Utah. It took years of deliberating before their parents, Jake and Erin, agreed to the surgical separation.
Surgeons, at the time, had never separated twins with just one kidney. It required months of research and preparation.
Doctors warned it would give the girls independence and the chance of a longer life but carried a risk of death.
In the end, it went smoothly – they were out of the hospital within six weeks, though they had to endure arduous spine-straightening and plenty of medical visits for years.
The girls are thankful their parents chose to go ahead with the procedure. Maliyah told Barcroft TV: ‘We are happy that our parents chose to separate us.’
Before the operation, the twins had to learn to get around together, each of them controlling one of the legs.
The girls are thankful their parents chose to go ahead with the procedure (pictured shortly after they were born with their mother Erin)
At birth, they weren’t expected to survive because they shared an abdomen, pelvis, liver, kidney, large intestine and two legs
After years of deliberating, their parents Erin and Jake (pictured) agreed to have them surgically separated in an unprecedented operation that would give them independence and the chance of a longer life but carried a risk of death
Kendra (far right) said she was the dominant twin when the pair were still conjoined as infants. She said: ‘I just remember that I would always want to be in control so I would pretty much run over her and [Maliyah] would be on her head’
Kendra said: ‘I just remember that I would always want to be in control so I would pretty much run over her and she would be on her head.’
The twins hadn’t thought much about the potential risks of the surgery, even though their parents had explained what was happening.
Kendra said: ‘We just called it “cut apart day”, we didn’t really know what it meant. We were afraid of every surgery though so when we went in for that surgery, I just remember crying.’
Kendra and Maliyah now take everything in their stride, adapting to strollers and crutches, and crawling so they can experience everything they want to.
The parents took a long time to decide whether it was best to separate Kendra and Maliyah because of the risks
The twins, pictured recently, said they understand when kids gawk at them, but they do feel uncomfortable when adults give them funny looks
Kendra and Maliyah adapted to using strollers and crutches as a way of getting around
The girls, who also suffer from scoliosis and have rods in their back as a result, are friendly, relaxed and enthusiastic – despite only having one leg.
Kendra joked: ‘The best thing about only having one leg each is we only have to paint one set of toenails.’
They live with their parents, older sister, and younger twin brothers, but they spend most of their time together.
They love their schoolwork, and sharing their story, which is something of a full-time job with their YouTube channel, blog and Instagram, which respectively have thousands of followers.
Speaking to the BBC, they say they understand when kids gawk at them, but they do feel uncomfortable when adults give them funny looks.
‘We’re kind of like… it’s strange. They should know not to,’ they said.
Doctors, at the time, had never separated twins with just one kidney. It required months of research and preparation
The doctors pictured performing the surgery in August 2006. The 26-hour operation was successful, left them each with one leg
They left Kendra with their only kidney, leaving Maliyah to undergo a transplant
Kendra Herrin pictured at the Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, following surgery to separate her from Maliyah
Kendra and Maliyah were studying online for years, which was particularly important for Maliyah in the last couple of years as she underwent a second kidney transplant.
She got her first kidney from their mother at the age of five, and it lasted 10 years. But at 15, her body started to reject it, and she had to go on dialysis.
After a year-and-a-half on the waiting list, an anonymous donor came through, and Maliyah underwent surgery.
Now, almost a year on, Maliyah is in good health, and they have decided to go to public school to mingle with other kids their age.
One of their friends and classmates, Anabelle, told the BBC: ‘They have taught me so much about going through trials and accepting them with grace and brave.’
In spite of their surgeries and health issues over the years, the sisters are at high school and living a typical teenage life.
Kendra said: ‘High school has been really good so far.’ Maliyah added: ‘We’ve never been bullied at school. We’re lucky.’
Although they share the same group of friends, the sisters have different personalities – Kendra is more outgoing.
They started their YouTube channel, Herrin Twins, three years ago and regularly vlog about their lives. Kendra said: ‘We like making the videos just to make people positive.’
The surgery left the twins with one leg each but they are thankful their parents separated them
They live with their parents, older sister, and younger twin brothers (pictured)
HOW ARE CONJOINED TWINS FORMED IN THE WOMB?
Conjoined twins develop when an early embryo only partially separates to form two individuals.
Identical twins (monozygotic twins) occur when a single fertilized egg splits and develops into two individuals.
Eight to 12 days after conception, the embryonic layers that will split to form monozygotic twins begin to develop into specific organs and structures.
It’s believed that when the embryo splits later than this — usually between 13 and 15 days after conception — separation stops before the process is complete, and the resulting twins are conjoined.
An alternative theory suggests that two separate embryos may somehow fuse together in early development.
Although two fetuses will develop from this embryo, they will remain physically connected — most often at the chest, abdomen or pelvis. Conjoined twins may also share one or more internal organs.
Many conjoined twins die in the womb (stillborn) or die shortly after birth. Some surviving conjoined twins can be surgically separated.
The success of surgery depends on where the twins are joined and how many and which organs are shared, as well as the experience and skill of the surgical team.
Conjoined twins are typically classified according to where they’re joined, usually at matching sites, and sometimes at more than one site.
Source: Mayo Clinic