Formerly conjoined Herrin twins always connected to family

Published: Monday, June 21 2010 12:23 a.m. MDT

Erin Herrin talks to daughter Kendra outside their North Salt Lake home. Kendra was separated from her twin, Maliyah, four years ago.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

NORTH SALT LAKE — On one of those recently rare sunny days, when scooters beckon and flowers bloom, two sets of twins and a blond-haired girl are hanging out on a front porch, talking about school and swimming and how silly their dog is.

It's a normal summertime scene for a family that is making an extraordinary journey, not all of it fun.

These are the Herrin children: big girl Courtney, 10, who's shy and graceful and motherly toward her little brothers and sisters. Twins Austin and Justin, 5, are recent preschool grads, and they are only as alike as jam and toast, which is to say, not very. But they go together just as well. And 8-year-olds Kendra and Maliyah, formerly conjoined twins, who nearly half their lives ago were separated in a marathon surgery that lasted more than a day and fascinated much of the world.

It has been in some ways a harder journey since then than anyone predicted, says mom Erin. This year has been marked — plagued, even, says dad Jake — with surgeries and infections and frustrations.

The girls were born joined at the pelvis and abdomen, sharing some organs and tissue. When they were surgically separated at age 4 in August 2006 at Primary Children's Medical Center, Kendra kept the kidney they'd shared. Maliyah had dialysis until she got one of her mother's kidneys in 2007.

Because of the organ transplant, Maliyah uses anti-rejection medications that keep her immune system somewhat suppressed. Each girl at birth controlled — and later kept — one of their pair of legs. They've since had numerous smaller surgeries, including expansion every six months of the rods in their backs to straighten some spinal curvature.

That's part of the challenge. Besides the rigors of the surgeries, the girls have experienced a series of serious infections that have been, says their mom, "quite rough." They're prone to superbugs that don't respond willingly to antibiotics.

In the past two months, though, they've been pretty healthy. And today, they are boisterously cheerful, the kids talking over and under each other as neighbor kids troop in and out to play.

So what's been going on? someone asks.

"Daddy turned 30 yesterday," says Kendra.

Adds Maliyah, "I'm not sure how old Mommy is: 28 or 29, maybe?"

"We've been swimming at the Surf-n-Swim," Austin pipes in, and Kendra excitedly adds, "I almost drownded when my floaty thing. …" Words fail her, and she pantomimes the crisis, with great drama and a huge grin.

The twin girls, who turn 9 in February, have both been down the big slide at the rec center just recently for the very first time. Maliyah, who's a little more timid, didn't like it quite as much as Kendra did. She prefers, she says, the new slip-n-slide toy her little brothers got for their birthday.

And so the sunny chatter rambles and rolls.

"My favorite show is the 'Wizards of Waverly Place,' " Kendra announces. To which Maliyah adds, "I like what Kendra likes." Maliyah shows off the fingernails and toenails Courtney carefully painted. In order, they are yellow, pink, darker pink, purple and blue. They say their favorite colors have changed since the surgery. At the time of the operation, Kendra liked yellow but now prefers green and turquoise. Maliyah has moved on from purple to green.

As they talk, they roll and crawl to get around, with astonishing agility and speed. At home, says Jake, when they're just hanging out, the girls prefer to scoot. It's easy, familiar and offers no chance of falling.

Outside, they gravitate to walkers or Big Wheels. And away, they may use their new bright-red prosthetic legs. Because they never had a stump to which a leg could be attached, the apparatus connects with a bucket that each must sit in. Moving the leg is a mechanical process of making the required motion to bend the knee, and walking follows.

Kendra walks quite well that way with crutches. Maliyah can do it with a walker. But they're still learning to use them, and they grow weary of the buckets and the leg weight. Like the rods in their backs, the legs periodically need lengthening, as the girls grow.

Erin says they have not quite learned to trust the legs' stability. The challenges of how to get around, though, have created upper-body strength that's "huge."

They love jumping on the trampoline — "I go really, really high," says Kendra. They really enjoy school, where they will soon be in the third grade. And the kids are crazy about camping, although with the logistics involved, Jake says, "a night, maybe two" is about all they can manage.

Later, as mom and dad talk about what's changed, the kids run in and out, doors thumping, dog Allie barking, life flowing.

"Shut the door," Erin yells, then turns to a guest. "There's always a door open. I tell them if the air conditioner bill goes up, we won't be going on the trip."

"The trip" is a Disney kid cruise, planned for sometime next year. As you chat with the kids, it comes up a lot.

For now, plans are simple. Enjoy the summer and the apparent break from getting sick. Go swimming as often as possible because wet is good.

The five little Herrins are best friends, and like their mom says, "from boredom comes creativity." So there aren't too many quiet moments.

Jake works full time, and Erin not long ago decided to go back to school. She's taking night classes at Salt Lake Community College, covering basics right now, so math and English take up some of her time.

Last year, while TLC Network was filming an hourlong special on the family, the book she'd been laboring over was published.

"When Hearts Conjoin" is still available at www.Herrintwins.com, where readers can also see personalized updates on the Herrins.

e-mail: lois@desnews.com

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