The odds of their conception were astronomical; of surviving in the womb, let alone a live birth, slim to none. The odds of living past their first day, worse than a coin toss, though not if the small army deployed by Vancouver’s Children’s Hospital had a say in it. And they did. And today, approaching their fourth birthdays on Oct. 25, Tatiana and Krista Hogan are wearing pretty velvet dresses, red and purple respectively. They greet you at the door of their sprawling, unruly home in Vernon, B.C., carrying a bouncy ball, and issuing a command: come play.
You have just enough time to add your shoes to the pile at the entrance and to give their mother, Felicia Simms, a quick greeting before you’re led through the living room and kitchen, to a long, sloping hallway that leads to some of the bedrooms in what was, until this year, a residential home for the elderly. They plant themselves at the bottom. You’re at the top, with their 2½-year-old sister, Shaylee, rolling and fielding their returns. Then the twins want the higher ground, but you’re doing it wrong. “No,” says Tatiana as though dealing with a mental defective. “Bounce it!”
They are the rarest of the rarest of the rare. Tatiana and Krista are not just conjoined, but they are craniopagus, sharing a skull and also a bridge between each girl’s thalamus, a part of the brain that processes and relays sensory information to other parts of the brain. Or perhaps in this case, to both brains. There is evidence that they can see through each other’s eyes and perhaps share each other’s unspoken thoughts. And if that proves true, it will be the rarest thing of all. They will be unique in the world.
They have been drawing international attention, both public and scientific, since before their birth. Dr. Douglas Cochrane, a neurosurgeon at Children’s Hospital, is part of the team that has been watching over them since they were in the womb. Last year he conducted tests in which one twin looked at an object while he measured the brain activity in the other. “Their brains are recording signals from the other twin’s visual field,” he cautiously concluded. “One might be seeing what the other one is seeing.”
The test and his comments were included in the documentary Twins Who Share a Brain, produced and directed by Kelowna filmmakers David McIlvride and Alison Love. It aired in the U.K. in May, and on CBC’s Doc Zone earlier this month. The couple spent a year tracking the family for their sympathetic and moving portrait. They grew close to the twins and their whole chaotic clan. “People who have sick children, the couples often split up and the families become divided. That’s the absolute reverse of what’s happened in this family,” Love says in an interview. “They’ve all huddled together to surround these twins and take care of them and do the best that they can for them, in their way.”
The documentary created a minor sensation when it aired in the U.K., drawing 2.5 million viewers, almost 10 per cent of the viewing public. Among the more bizarre responses it engendered was a debate on the British student chat site The Student Room; the topic: “Conjoined twins sharing a brain—one person or two?”
The debate was of the angels-dancing-on-a-pin variety, as though science nerds had stumbled into a philosophy class. “I think it depends on whether they can develop their own personality,” opined one. “But then does that mean they are just one person with a very weird split personality disorder?” Added another: “If one is capable of thought that the other can’t interpret or won’t know about, then I’d say it’s two people. Otherwise I’d say it’s just one person with two functioning bodies.”
It’s safe to say no one in the twins’ family has any such doubts. The girls were distinct from the get-go, and they grow more so as they age. Krista is the larger and stronger. Tatiana, while smaller, is the work horse. Her heart does much of the pumping, her kidneys and liver do most of the filtering. “Krista is my bully. I think she always will be,” says Simms. “But [lately] Tati has taken a lot of the authority,” she adds. “ ‘If you’re going to be mean to me, I’m going to stop being nice.’ [Tati] is not as laid back as she was before. It’s a good thing.”
The twins receive weekly physiotherapy, most recently to improve their upper arm movement. Although some doubted they would ever walk, their mobility continues to improve. They walk and even run a bit, albeit awkwardly. They spin with remarkable ease, and they flop and wrestle on the floor with their siblings in a joyous tangle of limbs. Although they lean into each other like an inverted V, their necks so far have not suffered from the strain. Picking them up, one worries they’ll break. And yet they are remarkably flexible. “Their necks don’t seem to bother them,” says their mother, “When you see them stand up and stuff, you see all the muscle in their necks. It’s amazing.”
It has been a challenging year for the family, a blended, multi-generational clan of parents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts. They number 13 or 14 in their rented home, depending on the day, as well as three cats and a burly seven-month-old bull mastiff named Zeus.
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