Happy smiling seven-year-olds: The twin sisters who can now live separate lives despite being born conjoined at the spine
Playtime in the park: Signe and Mille have no health problems after they were separated aged three months
They play side by side, walk hand in hand to school and love dressing-up games – the picture of happiness at seven years old. Yet these twin girls were born conjoined – bonded at the spine with a question-mark over whether they could survive.
Thanks to British medical expertise, Mille and Signe (pronounced Milla and Seena) have gone from strength to strength after surgery to separate them at the age of three months.
From the moment they worked out how to
stand at the age of 11 months, every step has been a landmark, every
year a milestone. ‘We’re special,’ says Mille, without further
Joined at the spine: The twins just a few months old before they were separated
Long before they were born at the end of January 2005, doctors had identified that the girls were joined back-to-back in the womb, fused at the base of the spine.
The Mail told at the time how their father Simon Stephenson and his Danish fiance Yane Christensen had to make the agonising decision either to terminate the pregnancy before 24 weeks, or risk giving birth to twins who might need lifetime care if they survived.
Later Yane was diagnosed with a life-threatening liver disorder that could have killed the babies in her womb. But the couple from north-west London placed their trust in the confidence of doctors who were convinced they could separate the girls without causing permanent disability.
For the first weeks after their caesarean birth, Mille and Signe shared everything, even a nappy. When one cried, both got a cuddle. When one slept, both had to lie in a single cot.
Yane fed both together on her lap. Then, after an eight-hour operation at Great Ormond Street Hospital – only the second of its kind to be performed in this country – the new parents were able to hold one twin each.
‘We found ourselves sitting as far apart as we could,’ Simon told me. ‘I’m sure it was a subconscious way of showing off to ourselves that we could do that.’
Doctors told the parents immediately after the operation it had been ‘completely successful’. Since then they have found nothing to suggest any long-term difficulties.
Fairy princesses: Signe and Mille dressed as fairies aged three
Always together: The sisters at the age of four
Scary: Twins Signe and Mille Stephenson enjoy Halloween together aged six
As soon as her daughters were able to understand, Yane revealed to them how they had started life together.
‘I just told them the whole story,’ she said. ‘Fortunately for us it was a happy story. We know other parents are not so lucky.’
Inquisitive strangers often ask the twins which of them is older, and by how many minutes. They reply that they are the exactly the same age ‘because we were born together’.
Mummy’s girls: The happy twins Mille and Signe with their mother Yane
Yane usually just smiles and shrugs her shoulders.
The twins are known to family and friends as the Moosies. Yane explains it’s an Anglicised corruption of mus, the Danish for mouse.
‘‘They were so small when they were born, we joked that they looked like a couple of mice in their nest.’
Initially, each girl’s back remained significantly curved, arching in the direction their spines were fused.
‘They curled up like bananas,’ said Simon, a 40-year-old art director for an advertising agency.
‘It was so pronounced, we couldn’t fit them into a child seat in the car.
But one night we were sitting watching TV when one of them suddenly stood up. Thirty seconds later, the other one did the same.
‘From then on, the spine problem disappeared.’
Yane added: ‘We had tried everything to straighten their backs, strapped them into all sorts of chairs and medical contraptions, but nothing worked.
In the end, they just did it for themselves. From 11 months old, they would stand up, wobble a bit, fall down – then get up and do it again.’
It was a major landmark in the twins’ transformation from helpless babies to children who were clearly determined to get on with normal lives.
Much of it is chronicled in hundreds of photographs that Simon and Yane, a 43-year-old freelance illustrator, took to record their daughters’ progress.
Holiday: Signe and Mille enjoy a trip to the seaside with parents Simon and Yane
Bath time: Mille and Signe get ready for bath time aged just one
The couple (the girls are nagging
them to get round to marrying so they can be bridesmaids) are aware of
the debt they owe medical staff who delivered the twins, and the
surgeons who operated to save them.
As Simon put it: ‘You realise how
good the NHS is when you have a really serious problem. I don’t believe
we could have been seen by better people.’
Next month he will run in the London
Marathon to raise money for Great Ormond Street, and is donating
proceeds from a collection of signed prints he is selling through a
The artwork he has created features cartoon style illustrations of various animals. One, of course, is a mus.