For expectant parents, there is probably nothing more shocking, awe-inspiring and – hopefully – joyful than finding out the one bun in mom’s oven is actually two. After all, the chances of a pregnant woman having twins is about three out of every 100 births in the U.S.
But that excitement undoubtedly turns to a chilling fear for the very small number of parents-to-be who discover that their twins are conjoined. It is a relatively rare phenomena – it only occurs in one in 200,000 live births worldwide. Sadly, the prognosis for conjoined twins’ survival isn’t high with only five to 25 percent making it past the trauma of delivery.
However, 15-year-old twins Kendra and Maliyah Herrin of the Beehive State were two of the lucky ones, much to the delight of their mom and dad, Erin and Jake. The sisters came into the world eight weeks early, at the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City on February 26, 2002. The girls beating the odds to be born and the amazing thing that happened to them next fascinated the media and drew lots of attention. So much so, that the twins’ story featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show in January 2007.
Viewers became so enamored with the engaging Kendra and Maliyah that many wondered what happened to the girls in the years after their episode aired. So in a follow-up series, Oprah: Where Are They Now?, first broadcast in 2013, Winfrey checked in with the sisters – and their twin progress was nothing short of inspiring.
In Kendra and Maliyah’s early years, they had little clue that they were different from other kids. Mom Erin showed off her happy, smiling babies to local news cameras as she rocked them in her arms. She told the reporters, “They’re amazing babies, smiling all the time.”
Nevertheless, despite their oblivious smiles, Kendra and Maliyah had an unbelievably tough road ahead of them. Joined at the abdomen and pelvis, the twins shared a liver, kidney, and large intestine between them. In addition, the girls shared two legs – each of the twins controlling one of the limbs.
Still, Kendra and Maliyah made the best of the bodies with which they were born. The conjoined twins taught themselves how to crawl, a skill that skeptical doctors thought may be impossible for them to acquire. Amazingly, they strengthened their legs to the extent that they were able to stand up on their own two feet.
But despite the twin’s progress, parents Erin and Jake were faced with an agonizing dilemma. They were told they would have to make a massive decision concerning their daughters’ future. Should the girls have surgery to physically separate them or be left the way they were? Whichever option mom and dad went for, Kendra and Maliyah’s lives were at risk.
Doctors knew from the twins’ birth that they would have to wait to perform any sort of surgical procedure, since the girls shared a kidney. One twin would therefore need a transplant, but that type of procedure can only be performed on children older than four. On top of that, the operation on the twins would make medical history; it would be the first time surgeons ever separated two bodies sharing the same kidney.
After much heartache, Erin and Jake decided the girls should lead lives independent of each other and elected for surgery to separate them. Needless to say, nerves were high on the day of the procedure, August 7, 2006. Before the girls were trollied into the operating theater, Erin asked them, “What are [the doctors] going to do?” One of her daughters responded, “Cut me apart.” When her mom asked her why, the twin had a simple answer, “‘Cause I’m so special.”
After the patients were wheeled away, all an anxious Erin and Jake could do was wait. A team of six surgeons performed an 18-hour operation to surgically separate Kendra and Maliyah. After the twins were successfully split, each girl was individually operated on for a further eight hours.
Miraculously, both girls came through the complicated surgery with relatively little to worry about. The twins were able to go home less than two months after their major operation. Kendra left with the kidney the girls had shared, while Maliyah was placed on dialysis until her transplant less than a year later. The organ she received was donated by her loving mother.
With such a high-risk surgery successfully completed, it is no surprise that the Herrin family were exposed to the full glare of the media spotlight. Few shone brighter than The Oprah Winfrey Show, the most popular daytime TV chat show in U.S. history. The Herrin’s Oprah invite duly arrived, and the family departed to Chicago to appear on the program just five months after Kendra and Maliyah were parted.
The Herrin’s appearance only served to stoke the awe and amazement surrounding their story. “Was it a long time before they were able to move around with all the surgery?” Winfrey asked. “Surprisingly not,” answered Erin. “Their wills are so strong. Kendra is just up and down off of her bed. It’s just amazing to us how well that they’re doing.”
Eight years later, in 2013, Winfrey decided it was time for an update on how the girls were doing. The Oprah film crew headed up to the Herrin family home in North Salt Lake to check in with the then 11-year-old Kendra and Maliyah. “[They] act like typical sisters,” Winfrey quickly observed of the twins who told the cameras that they loved playing with their Barbie dolls.
By that time, the girls were at their healthiest ever, according to their mom. Daily physical therapy helped strengthen their bodies and, with them just having one leg a piece, they were being taught how to walk with prosthetic legs. Every six months, the twins had been undergoing surgery to help straighten their spines.
As their aforementioned love for Barbie can attest, despite their unique backstory, the sisters’ greatest joys in life were the same as other kids’ their age. Kendra was filmed saying, “I like swimming, playing with friends, riding bikes, jumping on the [trampoline].” Maliyah comically added “eating” to the list, to which her sister emphatically agreed. She laughed, “Yeah, eating!”
Unfortunately, it has not been smooth sailing for the twins since that interview was shot in 2013. Two years later, Maliyah’s health was jeopardized by her donated kidney. The little girl’s body started to reject the organ despite its successful transplant in 2007. Doctors tried everything they could to slow that process down, but sadly the organ was simply unable to function much longer.
Thankfully, another family member proved a match and was able to step in and save Maliyah’s life. The news was announced on the twins’ official Facebook page, where Erin posts updates on the girls’ health and accomplishments. In July 2017, the mom wrote, “Maliyah was approved for her transplant. Amy, her aunt, will be a pair exchange for Maliyah.”
While a major transplant might worry the average 15-year-old, as we have seen, Maliyah is far from average. Both Herrin twins have shown extraordinary character to come as far as they have already. Of course, the girls have always had a supportive community around them. This team includes their parents, older sister Courtney and younger twin brothers, Austin and Justin. But also cheering the twins on are the countless millions who only know them through TV and the internet for their amazing and inspirational story.