Twin Sisters to Share How They Overcame Cystic Fibrosis

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Anabel and Isabel Stenzel blow bubbles with transplanted lungs. (Photo courtesy of "The Power of Two")

Isabel Stenzel Byrnes and Anabel Stenzel, twin sisters whose mother is Japanese, will be on hand to answer questions after a screening of the documentary “The Power of Two” (with Japanese subtitles), which is about their lives and how they struggled to overcome cystic fibrosis.

This special Tateuchi Public Program will be held in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum of the Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. First St. in Little Tokyo, on Saturday, June 30, at 1 p.m.

The series, organized in partnership between the Atsuhiko and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation and JANM, develops presentations that explore the connections between Japan and the U.S. in the context of politics, art, music, and culture, and that enhance understanding between the two countries.

When twins Isabel and Anabel were born to Reiner Stenzel and Hatsuko Arima, they were almost immediately diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes abnormal transport of salt and water in the lungs, digestive tract and sweat glands. As a result, the lungs fill up with mucus, which affects breathing and pancreatic functions. The prognosis in 1972 was for the girls to live less than 10 years.

Growing up in Pacific Palisades, the twins’ lives revolved around treatment, therapy and long stays in the hospital while trying to stay in school. Home therapy involved someone smacking the sisters in their backs to help them cough up excess mucus in their lungs. Despite these challenges, the girls were able to live in Japan, visit their grandparents in Germany and attend Cystic Fibrosis Summer Camp with other young people. Yet their condition remained the center of their lives.

Anabel wrote, “I am really scared sometimes when I can’t stop coughing or breathe. When my breathing becomes so labored I get so sick of it. I feel like just yelling STOP! and relaxing my lungs for once. I sometimes wonder what life without coughing, doing therapy, or taking medications would be like. I wish I could take my new bike and just ride away from it all and have just one day without a cough, weakness or the thought of dying.”

While the sisters beat the odds and enrolled at Stanford University, they suffered as their friends with CF passed away. They also struggled with the reality that while they were twins, their conditions were different, as were their personalities and social development. Their love and loyalty for each other was strained by sibling rivalry and the natural desire for individuality.

“As we attained physical maturity, Ana and I found the curtain rising to reveal a new stage: sexuality,” Isa wrote. “I remained painfully self-conscious and shy about my newfound sexuality, but Ana reveled in her emerging curiosity. She professed an expertise about sexuality despite her naiveté and inexperience. Like me, she had yet to find a real boyfriend.”

Ultimately, both sisters faced the hard reality that their lungs would fail them at some point. Their last resort was lung transplantation. But, as one of their doctors warned, “With lung transplantation, you’re trading one disease for another. Lung transplantation is not life-saving, it is life-prolonging. There are no guarantees. You will be immuno-suppressed for the rest of your life.”

The sisters originally put much of their experiences in a book they co-authored, “The Power of Two: A Twin Triumph over Cystic Fibrosis” (2007), and now in the documentary with the same name. The film, produced and directed by Academy Award-nominated producer Marc Smolowitz, has garnered many awards from film festivals around the country. One observation the sisters make is that they were lucky to have been born in the U.S. and not Japan, where treatment for CF and organ transplantation are not as advanced.

Admission is free, but reservations are encouraged by calling JANM at (213) 625-0414, ext. 2218. For information on the film, visit www.thepoweroftwomovie.com.

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