Dr. Christopher Moir was in charge of completely separating the conjoined Carlsen twins, and it was a painstaking endeavor. Indeed, as he and his team attempted to detach the girls’ internal organs from one another, one false move could have resulted in death for one or both of the babies. So, when the surgery was completed 12 hours later, had both the girls managed to survive? And if the twins did make it through the operation, what were the consequences for their health?
But while watching young twin sisters Isabelle and Abby Carlsen swinging around on climbing frames, you’d be shocked to learn what they went through over a decade ago. How could they recover from such a traumatic event to become such vibrant pre-teens?
Isabelle and Abby are two 11-year-old sisters who live with their parents, Jesse and Amy. And although they now reside in Mandan, North Dakota, these happy-go-lucky fifth-graders actually started life in Minnesota.
However, life hasn’t always been so easy for the Carlsen girls, who were born conjoined. But after entering the world on November 29, 2005, the two little bundles of joy wouldn’t have had a clue about the media attention that they were about to receive.
Indeed, while looking up at the cameras with their innocent eyes, the newborn babes would have been blissfully unaware of their dangerous predicament. Specifically, the little pair were attached from the abdomen up to the chest; as a result, Isabelle’s heart was partially situated within Abby’s chest. In addition, some of their other internal organs had also become entwined.
Furthermore, the conjoined twins also had only one small intestine and liver between them. And because of the critical situation the small pair were in, doctors at Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic kept the girls there for the first six months of their little lives.
In addition, Isabelle and Abby really could be described as miracle babies. That’s because conjoined twins only account for five in every one million births in the world. So, although they weren’t quite one in a million, they were still very special girls indeed. Plus, the twins were very lucky just to be alive.
In fact, they had defied all the odds. According to the University of Maryland, almost half of all conjoined twins are stillborn at birth. What’s more, a further 35 percent don’t survive their first 24 hours. And, back in 2006, the procedure to separate conjoined twins had a 60 percent fatality rate. Nevertheless, doctors decided to go ahead with the surgery to separate the Carlsen girls.
However, due to the complicated nature of the surgery and the high risk of failure, the Mayo Clinic’s medical teams had to train for months in advance. Led by Dr. Christopher Moir, an incredible 17 different surgeons would participate in the operation.
Thankfully, according to Moir, such careful preparation had reduced the likelihood of the twins dying to 10 rather than 60 percent. Then the day of reckoning finally came on May 12, 2006. Incredibly, the operation went on for an arduous 12 hours – but would it be a complete success?
Well, the surgeons still had to make some tricky decisions and also faced a few critical situations during the op. These moments, moreover, if handled incorrectly, could have resulted in death for one or both of the twins.
For instance, one major challenge was the procedure to shift Isabelle’s heart from her sister’s chest into her own body. It took a few attempts to move it into the right position, and Isabelle’s blood pressure fell to dangerously low levels in the process.
Furthermore, surgeons had to delicately splice the girls’ shared small intestine into two pieces. Isabelle, the weaker of the two, received the duodenum and bile duct; Abby, however, got the lower part of the small intestine, which is essential for digesting food. And although their bodies subsequently coped with the missing parts, the surgery to reconnect Abby’s digestive system was grueling.
Then, hours later, Dr. Moir faced another life-or-death situation when working on the girls’ shared liver. “You had to create two out of one,” Moir subsequently told the Minnesota Star Tribune. “We were getting right down to the limits of what each girl had left for reconstruction.” Nonetheless, despite all the complications during surgery, the procedure was a success.
Indeed, both girls survived, and within just two weeks they were back at the family home. In fact, since that day more than ten years ago, the twins have thrived, with parents Amy and Jesse watching them grow up with a mix of awe, bewilderment and, of course, concern.
At 11 years of age, the Carlsen twins are giggly and full of beans with a penchant for gymnastics, trampolining and fashion. However, they also have a very competitive streak, battling over their assignment marks and art projects. “They’re always asking, ‘How’d she do? How’d she do?’” Amy told the Star Tribune.
And although they still look remarkably similar, Abby and Isabelle clearly have their own distinct personalities. Indeed, the sisters can’t stand the idea of being mistaken for each other. “Every night we look in the mirror in our room, and we’re like, ‘How do people get us mixed up?’” Abby told CBS News.
Indeed, it’s perhaps hard today to believe that the girls were once attached and have survived separation surgery with no major problems. However, due to her heart having only a thin skin layer over it, Isabelle has subsequently undergone additional operations to protect it with a Gore-Tex covering.
Moreover, even though the girls can’t recall being conjoined, they do occasionally display some spooky signs of those early days. For example, one of them will occasionally reach out a hand to the other, just as they used to. “In the mall, we, like, grab each other’s hands,” Isabelle told CBS News. Indeed, it isn’t something that’s gone unnoticed by their mom. “You’ll see that one hand kind of looking for her sister,” Amy added.
And it seems that few people are as proud of the girls as the man who performed their life-changing surgery, Dr. Christopher Moir. “My heart leaps every time I hear about the Carlsen girls or see a picture of them doing so well,” he told the Star Tribune. “Because I know they beat the odds.” Not only did they do that, but they’ve since managed to thrive and develop into two very individual young girls of whom any parent would be proud.