Two Bhutanese conjoined twins who traveled to Australia to be separated have returned home this week, completing a nearly 12,000-mile round trip to receive the life-saving surgery.
Nima and Dawa Pelden, along with their mother, Bhumchu, arrived in Bhutan on Thursday, according to the Children First Foundation (CFF), a charity which funded their medical treatment.
“To all the Australians near and far who sent me their love and support, you all gave me hope and put smile on my face while going through some terrible times,” Bhumchu said in a statement shared by CFF. “I just want to say, you guys are awesome.”
Her daughters were born joined at the stomach and grew up facing each other, unable to move independently. They were flown to Australia in October for the operation to separate them.
That procedure ended up taking over six hours, and involved about 25 surgeons, nurses and anesthetists.
Speaking after the successful operation, Dr. Joe Crameri, head of pediatric surgery at Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital, said it was a “relief” and a “joy.”
“There is nothing better in any operation than to be able to go to the parents and say, ‘we’ve been able to look after your child’,” he said. “I feel confident that they will be able to recover from this and go forward.”
Following the operation, the twins remained in Australia for recovery and observation. Nurses told reporters they wanted to be close to each other, despite no longer being physically attached.
“We try and have them a little bit apart,” nurse Kellie Smith told CNN affiliate Channel 7. “But they manage to sort of bum shuffle back together and have their legs intertwined always.”
The nurse added that ward staff initially tried putting the twins in separate beds but “they didn’t like that at all.”
“They’re in the one bed together and just happy playing with one another, and it’s actually beautiful to see,” Smith added.
“They like their mother close, too. They’re always looking for mum and she’s never far away.”
The twins were born via cesarean section in 2017 and are believed to be Bhutan’s first conjoined twins. As well as issues with mobility and comfort, ahead of their surgery the twins had been losing weight, which was a concern to doctors, said Elizabeth Lodge, head of CFF.
The girls’ operation was estimated to cost about $180,000 (250,000 Australian dollars), CNN affiliate 9 News reported.
In her statement Thursday, Bhumchu thanked hospital staff and other supporters for looking after her and her children while they were in Melbourne.
“My life in Australia was (comfortable) because of the lovely treatment you all provided to me,” she said. “To each and every Bhutanese in Australia who contributed for the future of my kids, I will ever remain grateful for such generosity. Thank you one and all.”
Conjoined twins occur once in every 200,000 live births, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. About 70% are female, and they are always identical twins.
Scientists believe that conjoined twins develop from a single fertilized egg that fails to separate completely as it divides.
“The success of surgery depends on where the twins are joined and how many and which organs are shared, as well as the experience and skill of the surgical team,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
They were previously commonly referred to as “Siamese twins,” a name that originated with Eng and Chang Bunker, conjoined twins who were born in Siam (now Thailand) in 1811. Never separated, they lived to the age of 63 and appeared in traveling exhibitions. Chang and Eng both married and fathered a total of 21 children between them.
While surgery to separate twins joined at the abdomen and other parts of their bodies can face complications, twins joined at the head are at a far greater risk.
The case of two American boys joined at the top of their skulls attracted global attention in 2016 when doctors successfully separated them after 27 hours of surgery.