Michelle Lauren Anderson‘s best friend and identical twin Katherine Anderson-Hill is her “constant support system.”
“But having someone who looks exactly like you — but doesn’t have scars — is always a reminder of what my life would have been,” Michelle tells PEOPLE. “She’s the life and the face I could have had.”
On May 19, 1996, the 2-year-old sisters were visiting their father and his wife (their parents divorced in 1994) in Fridley, Minnesota. The weekend trip went horribly wrong when a fire broke out in their bedroom that night. While Katherine was able to escape without major injury, Michelle’s bed caught fire and left her with burns on over 90 percent of her body.
Michelle miraculously survived, but not after many touch-and-go moments when doctors, and her mother, Linda Anderson, didn’t know if she would make it another day.
“They told me that if she survived, she would have no hands and feet, maybe no arms and if she got off the ventilator, she’d be on oxygen and possibly be blind,” says Linda, a registered nurse who works in a postanesthesia care unit.
Two weeks in, Michelle developed sepsis, and doctors urgently began a series of temporary dressings and skin grafts, mostly from donated tissue, to cover her burns and avoid further infection.
“They did her face first,” says Linda, who married Edward Anderson in 2000. “Then every two weeks for months, they’d take skin from her back, head or her butt and replace another part of her.”
Michelle underwent 25 surgeries before she finally went home on Nov. 1, 1996.
“That’s when the recovery really began,” says Linda. “Katherine was too young, but Michelle had lost everything.”
In the 24 years since that fateful night, Michelle and Katherine, now 26, have forged an even stronger connection.
“There’s parts of our lives that no one can understand,” says Katherine, a nurse in the cardiac ICU at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “The fire truly shaped our personalities and who we are.”
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While Michelle has fought mightily to overcome the pain and ordeal caused by her injuries (she’s had more than 80 surgeries so far), Katherine has had to come to terms with her own remorse and frustration.
“There were times when I felt a lot of guilt seeing my sister in pain, and knowing there was nothing I could do,” says Katherine, who married Matt Hill, a 25-year-old research technologist at the Mayo Clinic, in 2017. “Every surgery was like a look back, and another time we had to relive this horrible thing… And I’d think, ‘It could have been me. Why wasn’t it me?’ It just didn’t seem fair.”
After years of being bullied in school — and Katherine feeling the exclusion as well — they both began to thrive in high school.
Katherine became a competitive synchronized swimmer and cello player. Michelle, who became an equestrian competitor, now teaches therapeutic riding lessons near her home in St. Paul.
“Finding our own identities is what saved our friendship,” says Michelle, who today is unable to sweat on over 70 percent of her body because of the skin grafts. “If we had done the same activities, it would have destroyed me. I would never have felt good enough because I would have always been comparing myself to her.”
Today, the twins couldn’t be closer — they live just two hours apart — or happier.
Michelle, who has worked for the Phoenix Society, a leading organization for burn survivors, is writing a self-help book about her journey and finishing her second master’s degree in business leadership.
“When faced with hardship in life, we all have a choice to dwell on what happened or move forward with life,” says Michelle. “To me and my family, the only choice we saw was to keep moving forward. The burn injury greatly affected all of our lives, but it isn’t all that I am or all that we are.”