“BALTIMORE TO LONDON TO SINGAPORE…
I had no time to rest and recover after my twenty-three hour journey. As soon as I arrived at the airport, I was whisked through customs, ushered into the backseat of a waiting Mercedes, and driven directly to Singapore’s new and prestigious Raffles Hospital for a lengthy introductory meeting and then a light lunch with my surgical colleague hosts.
After these preliminaries, I was ready for my first appointment- the long-anticipated encounter with our special patients. It promised to be one of the most fascinating and unusual interviews of my life. I don’t recall what my fellow neurosurgeon Dr. Keith Goh said to me as the entourage of physicians, nurses, and medical administrators rounded the corner in that hospital corridor- but I will never forget my first sight of Ladan and Laleh Bijani”
–Dr. Ben Carson in Take the Risk
I came across this story almost exactly 10 years after the scene narrated above occurred. Ladan and Laleh Bijani had never lived a day apart from each other- not by choice though. They were craniopagus twins- joined at the head from birth. Medical experts claim that conjoined twins occur only once in every 200,000 births, and craniopagus twins (the rarest of all forms of conjoined twins) are found in perhaps one in two million births. Survival rates for such births are extremely low, which made the Bijani Twins a more interesting case- these Iranian ladies were 29 year old graduates, one with a Law degree and the other, Journalism graduate.
However, at 29, things had come to a head (pardon the pun). Ladan and Laleh were tired of always having to be together. Moreso, their increasing interests in unrelated activities led to mounting tensions between the sisters. Each one wanted to pursue her passions but that was hard since the other had to be considered in every decision- from the very important to the most mundane. There was just one option- undergo a grueling, first-of-its’-kind surgery to give each sister a chance to finally be free for the first time.
As you’d expect, their decision to be separated met with stiff resistance from medical experts- for obvious reasons. At 29, the Bijani girls were considered waaaay too old for such a risky procedure, they shared a vital blood vessel and the extended nature of the joint posed grave concerns for surgeons. In fact, on more than one occasion, the twins had their request rejected. But they persisted until finally, Dr. Keith Goh agreed to put together a team to attempt a medical first- successfully separate craniopagus twins that old (before then all successful craniopagus separations had been on patients less than 2 years old). Dr. Carson was called up as part of a meticulously assembled international team of experts from Singapore, the United States, France, Japan, Switzerland and Nepal- it was indeed poised to be the most publicized craniopagus surgery in the history of medical science.
On Sunday, July 6, 2003, Ladan and Laleh Bijani were wheeled into Operating Theatre 11, Raffles Hospital, Singapore. Six floors below, scores of journalists waited for any bit of news that might filter down.
The surgery commenced. Except for a few obstacles, everything progressed as planned- until hour 50. An unexpected complication caused a pressure build-up at the base of their brains. Time was running out, exhaustion and fatigue soared in the OR, and the bleeding just wouldn’t stop. As doctors battled to save the Bijani twins, what they dreaded happened- Ladan arrested. The race was truly on. Fortunately, the doctors successfully separated their heads. For the very first time since birth, Ladan and Laleh Bijani were free to live as truly separate individuals- if they could pull through the mounting complications.
On and on the doctors struggled to stop the bleeding- with no luck. At 2:30pm on Tuesday, July 8, 2003, Ladan died.
But grief had to be delayed. There was no time to mourn. All attention turned to saving Laleh- it had previously been agreed that she’d be the twin to save in case one of them inevitably had to be lost. But Laleh’s bleeding persisted. She arrested as well. After 53 hours of operation, and ninety minutes after her sister, Laleh Bijani also died from uncontrollable blood loss. Chilly silence and numbness swept through the OR- the operation had failed.
Dear young person, I share the story of the Bijani twins, not to sadden you, but because of what those two brave women said before going in for that operation that doctors gave a 50% percent chance of success.
In the book, as Dr. Carson recounts his attempt to explain the significant risks involved and the possibility of death for either one or both of them, Ladan and Laleh stated, ”We would rather die than not pursue this if there is any chance we could be free to live our own separate lives. Death would be better than continuing to live like this!”
Hmmm…what conviction in those words! They were ready to die for a chance to go solo- to live as separate individuals. That word- separate- jumps out at me. It evokes thoughts of individuality. Singularity. Wholesomeness. Distinct. Different.
There’s something called ‘the herd mentality’- it’s the tendency for people to blindly follow widely accepted ways of thinking/living. I see it in young people today when we blindly chase jobs without stopping long enough to think about what we really want to do with our lives . I see it as we’re losing our individuality in trying to look like ‘him’ or ‘her’. A celeb spots a hot, new style, a new ‘slang’, or even a new dance…and we mindlessly follow. We want to act and live the way we’ve been told ‘cool’ youths should. We struggle to fit in- even when we sense that voice within saying “this isn’t who you are”.
Ladan and Laleh paid the ultimate price in their quest to go solo. I think their desire for separation went beyond the physical dimension. I believe there was a deeper desire in each twin to actually live as a distinct entity- physically and psychologically. I’m inspired by their courage. And their attempt gives me a new sense of value for my individuality (in more ways than one). Thankfully, you and I don’t have to go under the knife to go solo. We can do it with a mindshift.
We can seek to know ourselves. To understand who we really are at the CORE of our being and proudly become it, to appreciate and admire the beautiful qualities in others without sacrificing our uniqueness. I ask you today- do you r-e-a-l-l-y know who YOU are? Can you answer that question without mentioning your name, gender, age, place of origin or present career/academic state/personal achievements? (If you’re wondering what’s left if these details are omitted, then you’re starting to get the idea- what’s left is you. Describe that.)
Here’s my challenge to you today. Find you. It will take some deep thinking (which is why many would rather not do it), it may require sacrificing some ‘online time’, some movies and books (even the good ones) may have to wait a bit. You’ll be forced to think about yourself in ways you’ve probably never done before. But it’ll be worth it.
Find you. Develop you. Improve you. Refine you. But whatever you do, don’t lose you. Be you- everyone else is already taken. Break free from the herd mentality. Go solo.
Live by Design.
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