Lexi and Sydney Stark are accustomed to making headlines, and their notoriety started well before these now 16-year-olds were born.
Lexi is now a junior at Colorado Early Colleges in Parker and plays hockey for Arapahoe Warriors Midget team. Sydney is a junior at Chaparral High School; her sport is rugby.
Both just got their drivers’ licenses and are loving their newfound freedom. According to their mom Emily Stark, Lexi is a speed demon behind the wheel, Sydney is the grandma driver. Two very different girls who at one time were conjoined as one.
Emily and James Stark vividly remember the day they found out the twins they were expecting were conjoined.
“Oh yes, that doesn’t go away,” laughs Emily, as she thinks back on that day. “I remember Dr. McDuffie going over and over one section of my stomach and turned everything off, and he said, 'they’re joined.' And I checked out”.
James remembers going home and trying to do research on conjoined twins.
“Everything we came up with was sideshow freaks -- all negative. It was really disheartening, and these are your kids, and you get nothing positive out of that,” James said.
They endured a lot of sleepless nights from that point on. The girls were born March 9, 2001, by cesarean section.
Who is older?
“Whenever we get asked this question, and we don’t want to go into detail that we were pulled out at the same time, we generally default to, 'I’m the oldest,'” Lexi said.
The real answer is, neither.
“It was just a c-section. They pulled all four feet out at once and so nobody’s older," Lexi continued.
What are the odds of having conjoined twins? One in every 200,000 live births. The odds of surviving are even slimmer. Forty to 60 percent of conjoined twins are stillborn, and about 35 percent survive only one day.
Exactly seven months from their birthdate, the girls were back in the hospital. It was the fifth of their six surgeries, and this was the big one: the separation. The surgery the Stark family calls the “sisterectomy."
October 9, 2001, the Stark family made national news when two girls, connected at the tailbone and spine, were successfully separated in a surgery that lasted 15 and half hours.
“We were very peaceful during the separation surgery. We had every family and friend come in, and they placed a bet on how long it would take to separate them," Emily said. “It’s like God had a dotted line on where to cut them apart. They were not mixed up. You knew exactly that was Lexi’s body and this was Sydney’s body. And every hour, we just got better and better news."
Just this month, another memorable moment for the Stark sisters. St. Joseph Hospital arranged for Lexi and Sydney to meet up with Dr. Robert McDuffie, the man who delivered them 16 years ago.
They meet up in the hallway of the hospital, big smiles on the girls’ faces as they spot the doctor and the three hug.
“I think I held you once, together," Dr. McDuffle told the girls.
Dr. McDuffie has delivered thousands of babies over the years, these two are the only conjoined twins on his lengthy resume.
“Looking back, I don’t know how we did it. It was like a whirlwind” James said, to which Emily adds, “We didn’t know any different. You have to remember these were our first babies”.
Quality of life for their daughters was always their biggest concern, and they felt better after one of their doctors told them the quality of life is what you make of it.
"That simple statement, 'quality of life is what you make it.' That gave us the power back,” James said.
And good things kept happening recalls Emily.
“Every time we turned around we had hope. We had 100 percent hope... that they would be potty trained, that they’d be running and playing hockey, and that’s what kept us moving forward," she said.
Sitting around the table in the Stark family’s kitchen, I asked the girls if they have a twin connection.
“Oh yes, definitely. We do know when the other is hurt or in an uncomfortable position. It’s like twin to the rescue. That’s exactly what it is, and we don’t even have to think about it,” Lexi said.
And even while explaining to me where physically they were connected, they even find themselves defaulting to sitting on the same sides their bodies were positioned when they were born.
“We were connected at the lower body. Our spines made a U like this. So it’s natural for us to go on the same sides where we were connected.”
Yet they aren’t afraid to be apart. Already attending two different high schools, they are looking at different colleges, some as far away as Canada and the United Kingdom.