Alabama Firefighting Twin Brothers Defy Disability

What sets the Abernathys apart from their comrades is not just their mirrored faces, but the fact they aren't able to run into a burning building; both twins are spastic paraplegics.

A shrill tone slices through the stillness of a double-wide trailer in Geraldine. It's 2 a.m., and this alarm clock doesn't have a snooze button.

"DeKalb 911 to all Geraldine Fire: All Geraldine Fire, we have reports of a structure fire on County Road 9 ..."

Before the scratchy voice of the dispatcher can finish her sentence, 36-year-old Brent Abernathy is up and fumbling for his boots. In less than two minutes he dresses, grabs the screaming hand-held radio from the bedside table and heads for his pick-up truck.

He pushes himself through the living room, his left leg almost always two steps ahead of his right. His right foot points toward his left and drags across the floor, nearly tripping him more than once. But he doesn't notice. His journey takes him around the 42-inch television, through the dining room and into the kitchen. He reaches the side door and looks over the kitchen bar and into the living room.

"Are you coming?," he yells to the empty room. His twin brother, Kent, shuffles into view, fully dressed and with his own black hand-held clipped to his side.

"Yeah, just hold your horses," he calls back.

Kent pushes toward the door in much the same way as his brother, with one hand gliding across the wall for support. He makes his way from the far end of the living room, around an extra wall that juts out beside his bedroom door and then around a coffee table. Finally, he too reaches the side door.

As they pull themselves up into Brent's pewter Chevrolet Z-71, Kent presses the mic on the truck radio. Slightly out of breath, he informs the dispatcher, "Geraldine 9 and 19 en route."

This has been the Abernathy brothers' unscheduled, middle-of-the-night routine since they were 18 years old.

"Whether we've just went to bed or whether we've been in bed all night or whatever, we get up and go," Kent said. "That's just part of it."

But planning out how you're going to pull yourself up into a fire engine without help from your lower body isn't "just part" of being a volunteer firefighter.

What sets the Abernathys apart from their comrades is not just their mirrored faces, but the fact they aren't able to run into a burning building. Both twins are spastic paraplegics.

The Obstacle

Spastic paraplegia is a rare form of muscular dystrophy that affects some 20,000 Americans, according to the Spastic Paraplegia Foundation. It can strike an individual at any time during his or her life and pays no mind to race or gender. The disease progressively weakens the leg and hip muscles, making it difficult or, in some cases, impossible to walk or stand.

The disease took hold of Brent and Kent's legs when they were in the sixth grade.

"The doctor told us this is something you can't predict," said the twins' father, Terry Abernathy. "He said it could have its course run and not really affect them anymore, or it could in six weeks' time have them where they can't even walk."

The doctors at Children's Hospital in Birmingham explained to Terry and his wife, Sue, that any treatment would have to wait until the boys' legs stopped growing. During the summer before their senior year of high school, the twins underwent surgery to lengthen their heel cords, also known as the Achilles tendon.

Surgeons made angled cuts into the cords, then reconnected them to make them longer. Spastic paraplegia is a neurological disorder. The nerves hold the leg muscles tense, preventing the individual from walking normally. Lengthening the tendons allowed the muscles to relax slightly and put the twins back flat on their feet. That surgery is the only form of treatment Brent and Kent ever received. Terry said the doctors informed them that lengthening the heel cords was really all they could do.

The years between then and now have seen the return of the slow-progressing deterioration of the twins' legs. They cannot stand without something sturdy to lean on and often fall while walking across the room. Although their steps are shaky, their determination to get where they're going never wavers.

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