A baby born with two heads in India made news a week ago. In that instance, the mother was poor and did not have an ultrasound or know weeks ahead what was coming. Imagine what it would be like for a mother to know she is carrying conjoined twins or a two-headed baby – one woman in Pennsylvania is dealing with that reality.
A 25-year-old women is due to give birth to conjoined twins, connected from the chest to the belly button, in three weeks. She has known since November about her situation and that there odds of survival are slim. The babies share one liver, two hearts (although one is much weaker), and one umbilical cord. Those facts make separation later impossible.
Michelle Van Horn of Indiana, Pa., along with boyfriend Kody Stancombe, is expecting for the second time. She already has a healthy 19-month old son. When she went for an ultrasound at 10 weeks, she was to surprised to hear of twins which ran in both families. When they sent her for a second test at another hospital, Van Horn reported she know something was wrong by the technician’s face.
Van Horn was told there is only a 2 percent change of survival, but chose not to terminate the pregnancy. But she is not optimistic about bring the twins home; she is afraid to buy anything for the babies.
Van Horn is at least as mentally prepared as she can be. The 28-year-old mother in India, Urmila Sharma, did not know until delivery that her baby has one body but two heads, necks and spines. There is only one heart, stomach and set of lungs. The heads reportedly each cry at different times. That woman had delivered a healthy baby a few years ago. The doctors in India are reaching out around the world to see what can be done to save the two-headed baby and possibly operate on her later.
About Conjoined Twins
Giving birth to conjoined twins or a two-headed baby is a reality that is not as rare as one might think. One in 200,000 births are conjoined twins, which by definition means two babies born physically connected. About 40 percent, like the case in India and the one in Pennsylvania, have only one heart and often share other organs.
Most conjoined twins do not survive. Only 5 to 25 percent that are born live more than one day. Then, the survival odds then depend upon where they are connected.
Separating conjoined twins who are joined at the base of the spine is doable. Surgical separation is not possible in many cases where key organs are shared. If a decision is made to try and separate the twins, one or both often die. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, when surgery can be done, 75 percent of the time at least one twin has survived separation since 1950.
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia conducted 21 successful separation surgeries since 1957. One recent case took eight months of prep and planning to separate twins who shared a chest wall, diaphragm, pericardium and liver. Shortly after birth in March 2012, plastic surgeons inserted expenders under their skin to make more skin available to cover exposed areas once they were separated. The final separation surgery that November was a seven-hour effort which involved 40 medical personnel. That procedure was successful.
Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh successfully separated twin girls in 2009 who had three legs between them. Since the surgery, each girl has one leg.
What happens when conjoined twins, who are still connected, grow up? That reality was answered by a recent television show (that aired on TLC in the U.S.) about Abby and Brittany Hensel, 22-year-olds in Minnesota who share a body but separate hearts, stomachs and spines. It showed them finishing college, traveling through Europe and trying to get a job. They have two distinct personalities and opinions. Imagine having to agree with someone every day on what to wear, eat, buy or go.
The Hensel girls have shown the reality of what life can be like for a two-headed baby or conjoined twins if they do survive and are unseparable. It remains to be seen what will happen to the Van Horn conjoined twins or the baby born in India.
By Dyanne Weiss