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Discovery Documentary Examines Conjoined Twins

To split or not to split -- that is the family-jarring
question. The natural oddity of conjoined twins is explored in Discovery Channel's
clinically interesting medical documentary, Joined at Birth, airing March 29.

Such siblings have been called Siamese twins -- the
politically incorrect but widely known term coined by P.T. Barnum to describe the most
famous twins of the modern era. Easterners Cheng and Eng Bunker traveled with
Barnum's circus earlier this century, making their living off their deformity. But
evidence such as cave paintings indicate an even earlier existence of conjoined births.

Today, about 50 pairs of conjoined twins per year are born
just in the United States. But due to medical advances, the decisions made at birth are
very different than those that were available to the parents of Cheng and Eng. In fact,
examination of some of the remains of that pair indicated that if they had been born
today, they could have been separated relatively simply. What doctors haven't deduced
is why the anomaly occurs in the first place.

I wouldn't recommend Joined at Birth for
pregnant women in their first trimester. It contains two rather gruesome surgeries: one of
a cesarean-section birth of frontally conjoined twins, and the other of the separation of
two sisters with separate brains but interlinked vascular systems joined at the crowns of
their heads.

The documentary does not dwell on the negative outcomes,
such as twins with united faces and heads that never survive. Instead, it shows both
nonsurgical and postsurgical twins who seem more well-adjusted than most people you will
ever meet.

Among them are Lori and Reba Schappell, 36-year-old women
from Reading, Pa. Joined at the forehead and facing different directions, the
lesser-developed Reba is carried or rolled on a special chair by her sister. Yet their
biggest dispute in life is the fact that one likes shopping more than the other. Stares or
rejection by "normal" people are just a fact of life.

Joined at Birth debuts on Discovery March 29 at 9 p.m.