Twin Gives Own Skin to Help Burned Sister

The Cowan children have always been close, especially 7-year-old Sydney and Jenny, identical twin sisters. It was that closeness that saved Jenny's life.

An explosion in the fireplace of the girls' Alabama home just over a year ago left Jenny struggling for life.

Then 6 years old, she suffered burns over 80 percent of her body when she was transferred to Children's Hospital in Birmingham after the Dec. 8, 2002, accident. When Dr. William Hardin, a surgeon at the hospital, went to speak to her parents, he was worried that Jenny would not survive.

"Dr. Hardin had already, you know, come out and said, 'She's in very grave shape. We're just going to have to watch her and wait. We're not sure,'" said Sherri Cowan. "And I said 'I don't know what I'm going to do. What am I going to tell Sydney?'"

A Lightning Bolt

It was a question that gave Hardin a new idea.

"Sherri looked at me and said 'this is just going to kill her twin sister' and it was like a lightning bolt had hit me that potentially we might be able to use a twin as a donor of skin," Hardin said.

Jenny's wounds had to be covered with new skin as soon as possible, to prevent potentially deadly infections — but Jenny's new skin had to be an exact genetic match to her own. Most burn victims grow new skin in a laboratory, a process that can take months.

It was a race against time, and young Sydney was ready and willing to help her sick twin. Jenny had burns everywhere except on her head, her hands, behind her knees and under her arms.

"We kind of explained it to her on her terms that she could let her sister borrow her skin but she would never get it back," Sherri Cowan said. "And Sydney was ready to do it, that day. You know, ready, [saying] 'well, let's go.'"

Hardin, who performed the surgery, talked to experts nationwide and learned there had been other successful twin-to-twin skin grafts. But it was a difficult ethical decision because some feared that the operation would expose Sydney to unnecessary risks.

Hard to Tell Apart

On Jan. 7, a month after Jenny's tragic accident, Sydney shaved her head so that skin from her scalp, back and bottom could be applied to Jenny's legs. It was history-making surgery, because of the twins' young age.

The girls recovered in neighboring hospital rooms. Now, a year later, it is hard to tell the twins apart. A closer look reveals that Jenny is wearing a full-body pressure suit, to prevent scarring. It is like a wet suit, and she wears it 23 hours a day, as though it is a second skin.

The family is putting the events of a tough year behind them.

"This is a magical story from start to finish, and to see Jennifer active, running down the hall, riding her bicycle … there's nothing more pleasing as a surgeon that one can see than that," Hardin said.

Her offer of assistance was a role reversal of sorts. When she was born, Sydney was blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. She was diagnosed at age 2 and 3 respectively. When her parents told Jenny about what was wrong with her sister, she knew already. She had been leading her sister around and helping her, the mother said.

To find out more about Jenny's progress and a fund set up for her care, go to helpjenny.org.

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