Twins born in one body 14 years later, this is how they look. Kendra and Malia are currently grown up and living their own separate teenage lives after being conjoined 13 years ago. Kendra and Malia Hale from Salt Lake City, Utah, and became known as conjoined twins, connected by their torso, making them share a large intestine, liver, bladder, and single kidney. Their rare condition was detected even before birth, and doctors advise they’d be aborted. However, their parents, Erin and Jake, took the risk and decided to deliver their twins at the age of four.
The sisters made headlines around the globe as they made history. Being the first kidneysharing twins to be separated, doctors feared conjoined twins Kendra and Malia Harrin wouldn’t survive after they were born, sharing an abdomen, pelvis, liver, kidney, and large intestine. The sisters are now 17 and thriving following an unprecedented 26 hours operation that left them each with one leg when they were aged four. That man’s actions wasn’t a one time event for the two. Now 17 years old and seniors at a Utah high school, they are mostly typical siblings and teens, despite growing up in the public eye because of the unusual circumstance of their birth.
Kendra and Maliah Haron were both conjoined at their abdomens, sharing a pelvis, kidney, and liver, and each controlling one leg. When they were four, a team of six surgeons and 25 support staff at Primary Children’s Hospital separated them in a surgery that lasted 26 hours. The surgery captured international attention, and the two have been the subject of a short documentary, a book by their mom, and countless news stories. They were featured on Oprah more than once, too, both before and since the 2006 operation. They’ve been photographed and stared at too many times to count by people who are curious.
The experience has forced them to think a lot about inclusion and what diversity means and how to talk to those who are somewhat different. And they’ve reached a pretty simple conclusion. Don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Don’t stare at them. Ask them if it’s okay to ask what happened, but be respectful about it, says Kendra.
Malia nods. Be nice, she says. Now on the verge of adulthood, the Herons sat down with the Desert News to talk about inclusion, disabilities, and independence. The Henry and girls say they know others with disabilities who’ve been bullied, including another set of formerly conjoined twins who got hassled for having each one leg. Their own experience has been relatively more pleasant than that, they say.
They’re not often excluded by other teens, in part because they grew up in the neighborhood and attended the same ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints. So they have a strong network, the two of them. A girl they’ve been pals with since third grade and a newer friend make up a tight circle that does pretty much everything together, Malaya says. Malia thinks many people are just nicer in Utah. Kendra thinks the fact that they’re open to talking about their lives helps.
Both girls prefer curious people. Be direct. Asking is better than staring, says Melia, who sometimes hears parents shush kids who are curious. She’d rather they told their kids to come over and ask their questions. They’ve been asked about their challenges and why they each have one leg for as long as they can remember, choosing their words to match a questioner’s understanding with little kids, they often simply say that they were stuck together and doctors had to cut them apart.
That’s how their parents, Erin and Jake Harris, explained it to them. They talk easily about their physical limitations. Kendra says her muscles are weaker than Malia’s. They move fast, using walkers when they’re at school or elsewhere, and scooting at home on wheeled stools like you see in a doctor’s office. They’ve had a lot of operations and quickly hit some of the highlights.
Because they shared a kidney that Malia accessed through their shared liver split during separation surgery, they knew she’d need a kidney transplant, and their mom donated one of hers. Not long after they were separated in May 2018, Malia had a second kidney transplant. Dad Jake was not a match, but gave one of his kidneys through a chain where a family member donates to a match in another family that needs one who donates to a match in another family chains can involve several families. The girls jokingly noted that exactly half of their family, which includes twin brothers Austin and Justin, sister Courtney and their new nephew Ezra, each have one kidney. Malia had heart surgery, and both girls have had surgeries to place and later replace titanium rods to straighten their backs, as well as smaller procedures to adjust those rods.
As the girls grew, Kendra had surgery to put a plate on her femur to straighten her leg so it pointed more forward, and doctors later put a bigger plate on. Much of what happened was unpredictable, like the time Malia broke the rod in her back, hopping on her one leg at a bridal shower. Rod replacements are the least of our problem. Surgeries, those are easy, says Kendra, who had an infection that required surgeries and kept her from the first month of her senior year. Still got A’s and B’s, she says proudly.
How many surgeries? So many, kendra sighs while Malia nods solemnly. They say they never brush off a question asked nicely. Kendra offers another piece of advice for both would be asks. US and those with disabilities who get asked.
You don’t know their situation, so be kind. But taking pictures, never your normal. Kendra wants to say, if I just took a picture of you, would you be okay with it? No, you would not. Orange socks.
Nothing more potent than personal experience when it comes to finding your own voice. Kendra had been thinking for some time that she and Melia might want to share their story with school kids when a woman at a YouTube convention asked if they’d do a video about bullying and inclusion for an initiative called Orange Socks. They’re just figuring out the details of that, I said, of course, remembers Kendra, who’s clearly the more gregarious of the two during an interview. Both girls engage in the conversation and laugh a lot, and Malia sometimes adds details or fills in gaps. But Kendra does most of the talking.
She often speaks in sentences that start with we. It’s exciting to be asked to officially talk about it, she says. They have a Heron twins Facebook page and make cheerful, lively YouTube videos that have attracted a large audience. One has been viewed more than 1150 times. Malia shy in person, is animated on camera.
Normally, she waits for someone else to start a conversation, but facing a large group of kids or creating the video with Orange Socks is an idea that excites them. And they may team up with Stand Up for Kindness, whose message is from Bystander to upstander the anti bullying message sometimes imparted at school assemblies. The Herons, like those two groups, want everyone to be included, despite differences. Orange Socks is an initiative advocating for those with disabilities and their families, connecting them to resources and each other. It was founded by Utah Gerald Nee Baker, whose daughter, Vanessa, 18, has down syndrome.
Before she was born, he started a nonprofit company, Rise Surfaces Incorporated, to institutionalized people with disabilities. It now provides varied supports to families of people with disabilities, including giving them a place to tell their stories. We talk about a diverse society, and we think of race and religion and ethnicity, but we rarely include disability, Knee Baker told the Desert. We are much richer the more diverse our society is. He named the initiative Orange Socks after a then unidentified woman whose body was discarded off a road in Texas.
She was wearing orange socks, and that was what she was called until she was finally identified. I was struck that she was discarded nameless, Knee Baker said. I thought she was an emblematic of people and disabilities that we discard, minimize and don’t employ. He only wears orange Socks adulthood’s clothes, adulthood looms and the hair. And twins look forward to increasing independence with both excitement and a touch of nervousness.
Being able to be on our own, just like any teenagers, no parents. Kendra exclaims, then speaks more soberly, but also different because I don’t feel like we are as independent as other teenagers. We have equipment. It’s heavy lifting. They’ve always gotten care at Primary Children’s Hospital, but will likely transfer to another hospital now that they’re almost adults.
Primary has been the site of all those medical procedures, even the unexpected ones. They look quite a bit alike, but have different tastes from their color preferences. Malia has always loved yellow, but Kendra, who used to favor purple, now likes blue better to their taste in food. It’s not just that Malia likes spaghetti and Kendra doesn’t. When they go out with friends, they often argue about where to eat.