They were the miracle baby girls thrust into the limelight of the world’s media after surviving the UK’s first spine separation surgery – right here in Birmingham.
Born as conjoined twins attached by their backs, little Eman and Sanchia Mowatt faced a bleak five to 25 per cent survival rate.
Doctors feared the operation, performed for only the third time in the world on the sisters in 2001, could lead to paralysis.
But at the end of a ground-breaking procedure, taking 16 painstaking hours at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, the three-month old girls could live as individuals.
The Great Barr sisters have lost count of the monthly hospital appointments and physiotherapy sessions they’ve had to attend at the hospital since – and the number of questions they’ve had about the surgery from curious friends and strangers.
“We were born this way, we just emerged into the world and by the time we were four or five, the news crews were always at our house every year celebrating the birthdays and stuff. It’s been overwhelming,” said Eman, sandwiched on Zoom between twin Sanchia and younger sister Damaris.
“There’s only so much you can try and hide that part of yourself before people start being curious and asking those questions,” she continued.
“We used to get people come up to us and say: ‘ I recognise you guys from the news’. Sometimes [now] there’s odd people who say: ‘I remember you’.
“Each and every day we’re getting more and more comfortable with the story. It’s not an every day story.
“A lot of our life is online, in terms of our birth story. But in terms of what we’re going through right now, that’s not really there.”
Now aged 19, the twins have ‘turned out five times better’ than medics predicted, with both pursuing different careers through their studies at university.
“We started walking earlier than expected. They weren’t sure if we would walk after the operation,” Sanchia said.
“We turned out five times better than they [the medics] actually ever imagined,” Eman added.
“Our parents thought very hard about the type of children they were going to be bringing up and we’re grateful we’re separated.
“We’re very separate beings now, we’re very close as sisters, but I’m glad we’re separate to do separate things.”
With the 20th anniversary of their separation surgery drawing nearer, the three Mowatt sisters hope to ‘give back’ by raising £10,000 for Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
The sisters plan to carry out various fundraising events through the year, with people directed to donate via their JustGiving page by December 10 – the date of their life-changing operation in 2001.
“Since then we’ve been in and out of hospital all our lives, now we’re 19 going on 20, we’ve finally left the children’s hospital. With the whole lockdown we haven’t been able to say a proper goodbye,” Sanchia added.
“We want to give back to the hospital that helped separate me and Eman into the individuals we are today.”
In 2019, the twins ‘had the privilege’ to carry out work experience at the Children’s Hospital – and met with the medics involved in their surgery..
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“It was an amazing experience, we got to say goodbye or say hello to doctors we hadn’t seen since we were born,” Eman said.
“We decided now we’ve left, what better way to thank them for all they have done, and all they continue to do, than raise money for them.”
Their younger sister Damaris, born 11 months after the twins, is joining the pair with their fundraising efforts.
She said: “They are quite similar they do a lot of things where I’m like: ‘Oh my gosh, you’re definitely identical twins!’
“But they have their own individuality, Eman wants to pursue politics, Sanchia wants to pursue technology and cyber security.
“They do have their own individual ways of wanting to express their passion. All three of us spend time together, we’re all in the same year.”
Eman added: “We call it the triplet phase, Damaris is born on August 23 and we were born September 13, so when she turns 19 this year, we’ll be 19 together for three weeks, then it will be mine and Sanchia’s birthday.
“We find our personalities switch quite a lot, we’re quite extroverted.
“There’s times when she’s extroverted and I’m introverted or visa versa. We’re quite similar, we bounce off each other.”
The sisters still suffer from joint and muscle pain, with Eman using a wheelchair and both using crutches to assist with ‘bad days’.
“We’re quite independent, or try to be,” Eman said.
“We get pains and that’s the complication that comes with it, we get a lot of joint pain, muscle pain.”
“I use a wheelchair and crutch sometimes and Sanchia sometimes uses a crutch as well when she’s not feeling 100 per cent.
“[It’s worse if] we end up walking further than we would like to. Sometimes we wake up in pain. Sometimes we have a bad day, which can be quite often.
“We’re old enough now to understand that when you’re born conjoined, everything isn’t all roses and daisies.”
They hope their fundraising efforts for the physiotherapy and the urology departments at Birmingham Children’s Hospital can help the hospital that gave them their individual lives.
“They have been so kind to us, so supportive,” Eman added.
“When you go there you just know you’re going to bump into someone, Its always nice to see them, catch up, and they get to see how well we’re doing.
“There’s a lot to say, they’ve done a lot, they’ve made sure we’re ok in the good and bad news we’ve received.”