IDAHO FALLS — Idaho Falls local Gabrielle “Gabby” Garcia doesn’t look like most 22-year-olds, but the former conjoined twin has a story most people her age couldn’t imagine.
Karen Swarens, Garcia’s mother, was living in California when she found out she was pregnant with conjoined twins 12 weeks into her pregnancy. At that time, Swarens had no idea what it meant. She was referred to a specialist, who encouraged her to have a late-term abortion.
“I absolutely refused,” Swarens said. “I couldn’t find anyone to take care of me for months after that. I went without medical care for a few months until I could find someone that would help me and not want me to abort.”
At 36 1/2 weeks, Garcia and her sister, Micheala, were born. The sisters were attached at the hip, and shared a pair of legs and kidneys, a bladder, and intestines. They were joined together for about eight months before undergoing what was supposed to be a 24-hour separation surgery. It ended up going so well, it only took 12 hours.
Although they had lost their stomach walls during the separation surgery and had surgical mesh placed inside of their stomachs to act as a stomach wall, Swarens expected that life would move forward and there would be no lingering complications for her twin daughters.
“You see a lot of the times how dangerous surgical mesh can be because it’s kind of like a foreign object in the body, and sometimes our bodies reject it,” Garcia said.
In 2011, Micheala ended up in the hospital and within weeks, Garcia was admitted too. The mesh inside both their stomachs was infected. The sisters had surgery to get the mesh removed, but Micheala’s mesh had infected her to the point that it hit her bloodstream, she developed a fungal infection and she became septic.
Garcia was discharged from the hospital Nov. 4, 2011, but the following day, her sister and best friend passed away at 13.
“I sit here and I wonder until I’m going crazy, all the what-ifs,” Garcia said. “They say that time really is supposed to make everything better and make it easier, but some days I feel like it hurts more than the first day that it happened.”
After the death of Micheala, Garcia said her life became stagnant, and she didn’t talk publicly about what had happened. It wasn’t until roughly two months ago when she decided that needed to change. She felt it was time to educate people and spread awareness about their condition and keep Micheala’s story alive too.
She hopped on the popular video-sharing social media service TikTok and shared some of their story. Garcia remembers having about 80 followers when she posted the video, and shortly after, the video had hit a million views.
“People are so curious, I think mostly because our condition is so rare,” Garcia said. “I have people reaching out to me that deal with similar things that I go through, health-wise. I have people reaching out to me who’ve also lost their twin sister. It’s opened a lot of doors for me to talk to a lot of different kinds of people.”
Although it never gets easier living without Micheala, Swarens is proud of Garcia for opening up about their story.
“I like hearing her be able to tell the story that she wanted to tell so much with her sister,” Swarens said. “But it does bring back a lot of memories.”
Garcia was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor that’s unrelated to being a conjoined twin. She says she still has rough days, but she knows her sister wouldn’t want her to be sad.
Despite being in a wheelchair, using an ostomy bag since she has no bladder and struggling every month to get the medical supplies she needs to take care of herself, she tries to see the bright side.
“There’s a saying that I always go by: ‘It’ll all be OK in the end, and if it’s not OK, then it’s not the end,'” she said. “I always live by that. I’m like, ‘This is just a mountain you’re going over right now, and it’s going to be OK.'”
To learn more about Garcia, click here.