Utah's Newly Separated Siamese Twins Can Take Heart from the Case of Teresa and Ginny Bunton, 22

updated 07/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Like millions of other Americans, Teresa Ward and Ginny Bunton followed the news about Utah's Hansen twins with fascination and joy: Doctors in Salt Lake City had operated on and successfully separated the infants, who had been joined at the head (PEOPLE, June 18), But Teresa and Ginny brought special empathy to the story; 22 years ago they had undergone a similar, pioneering operation. (The Hansens' is only the third ever performed. In the first, in 1952, one of the twins died 34 days later.)

Teresa Kay and Virginia Kate Bunton were born in August of 1956, joined above their right foreheads. Together they weighed only seven pounds three ounces, and neither was expected to live. Their mother, Virginia Maude Bunton, had been widowed three months before, and already had two small children, both healthy. "I didn't know what to do," she says now. "I look back and I don't know how I managed. I just wanted to die."

But with the help of their congressman, the Bunton twins were admitted to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. There, on Dec. 11, 1956, a team of 10 doctors separated them during seven hours of surgery. (The Hansen twins' operation, much more complicated, took nearly 17 hours and required a staff of 20.) Sections of embryonic calf skin were successfully grafted across their open skulls. After 10 months at NIH, the girls were allowed to go home. (During her recovery Ginny developed a form of meningitis, and she still requires daily medication to prevent seizures.)

The Bunton twins spent much of their early years commuting back to Bethesda for additional tests and surgery. "All I remember," says Teresa of the visits, "is that they always shaved us baldheaded, and I'd always end up crying." Special plastic headgears were fashioned to protect them, but one attempt to implant a steel plate in Teresa's skull failed. Now each wears a clear plastic headpiece under her long brown hair.

As they approach their 23rd birthdays next month, the twins display distinctly different personalities. Teresa smokes and drives a car. Ginny, the shyer, quieter twin, does neither and has remained with her mother and grandmother on the 17-acre family farm in Tennessee's Iron Mountains. She attends Baptist church three times a week and reads her leather-bound Bible nightly. In it she keeps a yellowed newspaper clipping with a photo of herself and Teresa joined.

Four years ago Teresa met Rick Ward while he was visiting his grandparents in Tennessee. They married a year later and live at his home in Granger, Ind. where Rick, 23, works in a recreational vehicle plant. Teresa talks frequently and optimistically about the futures of Lisa and Elisa Hansen, now 21 months old and in satisfactory condition—although a discharge date from the hospital has not been set. "I hope they have a really happy life and get along okay as we have," she says. "I'm just really proud to be one of the Siamese twins." In time Teresa is hoping for children of her own. "I've always dreamed of having twins," she beams. "A little boy and a little girl."

From Our Partners