SINGAPORE -- As they were wheeled into an operating room today for an unprecedented surgery that even one of their lead doctors tried to discourage, twins Ladan and Laleh Bijani didn't know whether they had simply lived their last days of life conjoined -- or their last days of life.
"They're actually taking it very well," said a nervous Bahar Niko, 24, who has become close to the sisters since their arrival in Singapore nearly eight months ago. "I think I'm worse than them."
The 29-year-old twins from Iran have been staying in a suite with a queen-sized bed at Raffles Hospital, a new privately run facility in the city's colonial district that towers above the streets like a high-rise. But, as planned, they spent their last night before the operation in the intensive care unit after more than six hours of brain scans and other final tests.
The twins entered the operating room at about 10 p.m. EDT yesterday. The surgery is expected to last at least 48 hours and involves an international team of surgeons, including Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Benjamin S. Carson.
A small group of friends gathered in the hospital lobby before the surgery with their cell phones ready just in case the twins -- who are joined at the backs and sides of their heads -- wanted to see them again before they went to sleep. Two bouquets of lilies sat on a table in front of them, a gift from the manager of a local McDonald's where the sisters had eaten a few times.
"All the best to you," read the card.
Ladan and Laleh, both graduates of law school in Tehran, arrived in Singapore in November for extensive tests to determine whether separation was possible and whether they could psychologically handle the risks. Because their parents and siblings stayed behind in Iran, the twins have been all but adopted by members of Singapore's Iranian community -- including Niko's family.
A kindergarten teacher at an international school here, Niko said she bonded with the twins from the start.
"We just felt so comfortable around them," she said. "I think most of the people [they meet] feel really comfortable around them, too."
Many approached them before the surgery and wished them good luck, and the twins asked for their prayers.
Niko's mother, Mariam Niko, has felt almost as though Ladan and Laleh are her own. The 44-year-old businesswoman, who moved to Singapore from Iran with her family about 16 years ago, has cooked for them, prayed with them and visited them every day after work.
"They're like my children, really. I'm very close to them," she said.
Along with other local Iranians, who have tried to help raise money to pay for the twins' post-operative expenses, the Nikos helped the twins celebrate their 29th birthday in January at a friend's house and spent Christmas with them at a local hotel.
At least once a week, they take the sisters shopping. Ladan, the more talkative of the two, especially likes to buy clothes. Laleh is into makeup.
During their time in Singapore, the twins have done their share of sight-seeing: They went on a night safari and visited a nearby island resort that features dancing musical fountains and basketball-playing parrots.
In an open letter released a few days ago, Ladan and Laleh thanked their well-wishers and said they had been touched by all of the cards and e-mail they had received from around the world. They said they had been praying every day about the surgery, which has been dubbed Operation Hope.
"We are excited about it, as we've waited 29 years for it!" the sisters wrote. "Please pray for us. For Operation Hope to be successful. Both of us have started on this journey together and we hope that the operation will finally bring us to the end of this difficult path. And we may begin our new and wonderful lives as two separate persons."
Though she is extremely nervous about the risky operation, Mariam Niko said Ladan told her recently that she hasn't felt stressed. "I said, `You're praying a lot. God is helping you. That's why you don't have any stress,' " Mariam Niko said.
For her part, Bahar Niko has kept telling her friends this: "Be strong."
And, every time, to show her that they are, they would clench their fists and give them a determined shake.