Crystal Copeland, 44, shares her inspiring story
I'll always remember looking at the monitor that day. I was 17 weeks pregnant and while having an ultrasound scan, I'd stared at the screen in confusion. I'm so rubbish at reading these scans, I thought. It looks like there are two heads.
There were! 'You're having twins,' the nurse exclaimed happily. My husband, John, then 26, and I were absolutely shocked. Although twins ran in my hubby's family, I had never imagined for a second we'd conceive two bubs at the same time.
But it was an exciting moment too, and when we were told our babies were girls, we were ecstatic. Heading home, John and I talked excitedly about names before calling everyone we knew to share our joy.
'You're having twins,' the nurse exclaimed happily.
But two days later, our doctor called with worrying news. 'I need you to come in for a detailed ultrasound,' he said. 'There's a problem with one of the babies.' Going in for more tests, we were soon told what was wrong. 'Your twins are conjoined,' the doctor said, explaining they were attached from the breast bone down to the belly button.
I remember those words, but what happened next is a blank. All I know is that we went from feeling on top of the world to being absolutely devastated. One or both of our babies might not live.I cried and cried, and breaking the news to my parents Starr and Bruce, they cried too.
Although we were quickly referred to a top surgeon called Dr Keven Lally, even he thought the worst. 'It is an extremely serious condition,' he told us. 'You may want to think about a termination.' But I couldn't. By now my babies were kicking in my stomach. Determined to battle on, John and I spent the weekend poring over books and the internet, looking for stories where conjoined twins had been separated successfully. We found none...
The future seemed bleak, but after a few more tests, Dr Lally revealed something that gave us hope. 'The girls are only sharing a liver,' he said, explaining it made separation easier because the liver is an organ that regenerates. He was hopeful our babies did stand a chance.
I clung to his words, deciding to make sure I was healthy enough to carry my babies until 38 weeks. My pregnancy progressed well and on June 10, 1996, I went in for a caesarean, surrounded by a team of doctors prepared for anything.
Within 30 minutes, Emily and Caitlin were born. Together, they weighed almost 5.4 kilos, and they were healthy. Seeing their tiny faces for the first time, I can honestly say I only saw two beautiful girls. The fact that they were joined didn't matter one bit.
I only saw two beautiful girls.
Dr Lally told us we'd need to wait until the girls were stronger before attempting a separation because Emily had a complication with her bile duct. So taking them home after three months, life became a real challenge.
I had to buy clothes that did up at the front and snap the poppers together where my babies were conjoined. Propping the girls against a cushion to feed them, I made sure they had a bottle at the same time. But it didn't take long to adapt and through it all I was just so grateful that my girls had survived.
Caitlin likes the crunchy cookies, while Emily likes the soft ones. While Caitlin asks for extra meat, Emily goes for vegies every time. Emily takes after me, while Caitlin is so like her dad. Together they are a team, and I feel blessed they are my daughters.
Looking back, I can hardly believe 18 years have now passed since my girls were born - and this is just the beginning of a new chapter. Emily and Caitlin have left home to start at two separate colleges. Emily is studying hotel and restaurant management, and Caitlin is studying teaching.
There's no doubt it'll be a challenge. The girls have never been apart before, but they'll only ever be a phone call away. I'm so proud of their success, and that's why I'm sharing their story. The odds were stacked against them all those years ago. But just look at them now!
Caitlin and I grew up not really thinking about the fact we were once conjoined, but looking back I do feel that we have an extra-special close relationship. Yes we argue like all sisters, but ultimately we are best friends and I need Caitlin like no-one else - I tell her everything.
It really is going to be sad and difficult when Emily and I move apart. Whenever I've felt sad she's been there for a hug or words of encouragement, when I've been happy we've shared it. Looking back at photos of when we were conjoined, I realise that the bond we have stems from those very special moments and I feel so grateful that she's my sister.
A life joined together
- Conjoined twins are very rare, accounting for about only one in every 200,000 births.
- Operations to separate conjoined twins are complex and dangerous. Some parents decide not to take the risk.
- US twins Abby and Brittany Hensel were born conjoined - sharing a liver, large intestine and reproductive system. Yet the pair, who are now in their 20s and still conjoined, are determined to live a normal, active life. By learning to compromise, they've been to university, gained their driving licences, enjoy an active social life and have even embarked on a teaching career.