Theirs was a story that gripped the world. Thousands monitored their every move. Every word they said; every step they took. And thousands more watch them die. That’s the story of the 29 year-old conjoined Iranian twins Ladan and Laleh Bijani, sisters literally stuck together from birth; sharing a common brain, and ultimately a common destiny. But it was not meant to be that way; the sisters had sought a high-risk operation to be separated. When asked why they wanted to be apart, they simply said they wanted to see each other face to face without a mirror.
One wanted to be a lawyer, the other a journalist. Different people with different aspirations trapped together in one physical entity. Thus began the quest to lead separate lives. Four years ago they sought professional help in Germany, but were turned away as the risks were too high and doctors feared that one or both would die. But when the twins heard of how Singapore doctors had successfully separated a pair of Nepalese conjoined twins, their hopes were rekindled and they sought treatment here. This time, no amount of persuasion could turn them away and they finally made the decision to be separated despite medical advice that told them otherwise.
It was a marathon surgery session, with doctors operating on them for more than two days. And their dream of separation finally came true, with both sisters finally living as distinct individuals for the first time ever. But alas, the embers of hope faded fast, and within three hours, both twins had died, 90 minutes apart from each other.
The world was shocked. Outbursts of grief overflowed from Singaporeans and Iranians alike. The Iranian Ambassador described them as little flowers, vibrant yet fragile. And in the minds of many, the twins should never have undertaken the operation in the first place; one that promised so little, but risked so much. Yet it was the deepest desire of both sisters to opt for separation. They gave instructions to their next of kin to go ahead with the operation no matter the cost; even if this meant a loss of life for both.
In many ways, the operation to separate the twins was a great loss. It caused the death of two vibrant sisters, each with her own dreams and aspirations. Now, in the aftermath of all the grief and pain, these dreams lie shattered in a hospital room, never to be realised and always remaining a figment of memory. But beyond the cruel reality of death, the sisters accomplished what they always yearned for all their lives – to be separate and distinct individuals. In that sense, the operation was a triumph of the human spirit; a celebration of hope in the midst of all adversity. To finally be able to see another person face to face without a mirror – that’s a story of great courage and unparalleled determination; to be told even if it results in the fading of a flower.
This article was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on 9th July 2003.
Words from the Heart