As she twirls in front of the mirror and giggles shyly at her own reflection, Trishna seems just like any little girl enchanted with her new pink dress.

She keeps swishing the full skirt, while beside her on the floor her sister Krishna sits smiling to herself and gently stroking the pretty fabric. Two girls, two dresses, and a moment many thought they would never see.

Four months after the surgery to separate them, New Idea spent a day with the twins whose story made headlines around the world.

As the three-year-olds throw balls, dance to music and squabble with each other over a new long bike, it seems inconceivable that just 18 weeks earlier they were conjoined at the head and unable to see each other as their little bodies were struggling to survive.

Today, they are very much their own people. Trishna is standing and walking around the furniture. She's cheeky, charming and, full of sunshine, smiles as she stomps around in the sneakers she adores. Every day, she comes out with a new, unexpected word.

Krishna's smile, when it comes, is achingly lovely. Everything in this little girl's life is hard won. She has always been sicker, more in danger and, consequently, her progress is slower. Yet for those who love her, every milestone is a miracle.

For Moira Kelly, who has been 'mum' to these girls since they were rescued from an orphanage in Bangladesh, Krishna is still her struggling little chick.

Krishna is the one who makes her cry, the one she cuddles just that little bit closer, and the one she feared she would lose.

'Trishna is flying,' Moira says as we sit on the floor with Krishna while Trishna sleeps nearby.

'Trishy's very intelligent and animated, and a real girlie girl. She loves playing with tea sets and always wants to sit up with the adults at dinnertime and eat off a big plate. She loves food, especially raw tomatoes. If I take her to the supermarket I've got to take a couple in my bag or we can't get past the fruit and veg section.'

Krishna, meanwhile, is still being fed milk through a tube in her nose.

For a year she couldn't eat because a tracheotomy was helping her breathe, but Moira patiently understands that this is just part of her journey.

'It used to upset me when other mothers would tell me to try this or that, but I now know that this is typical of a girl who's suffered chronic illness,' she says.

'Even looking at food makes her gag, and it's the only thing she's been able to control in her life. We're just starting to introduce food and Sue Morse, the speech pathologist and mental health worker, has told me it doesn't matter if it takes a while for Krishna to eat properly.'

But after always being so fragile, Krishna's personality is starting to shine. She visibly relaxes when she hears music and giggles as Moira sings one nursery rhyme after another.

Last week at playgroup, she astounded everyone by rolling a good 10 metres across the floor after spotting a little boy playing with a colourful shape sorter.

Moira says, 'She was so determined. When she eventually got to it she tried to kick it away from the little boy. I should have taught her about sharing, but that can come later. She deserved it.'

Although Krishna's at the developmental age of a nine-month-old and Trishna's comparable to a two-year-old, Moira says there's no reason why, in time, they shouldn't catch up to their peers and live like other children.

In fact, she's already joking about the boys they might attract.

'Krissy will be able to spot a fool. She'll be hard to get to know and she doesn't look many people in the eye, but she's a thinker,' she says. 'Trishy will get her heart broken a few times. She's very open and outgoing.'

Growing independence

Considering they were conjoined for nearly three years and could not move without disturbing the other, Trishna and Krishna are very independent.

Trishna calls her sister 'baby' and they do hug each other. But like most toddlers, they want toys and attention all for themselves. Trishna was even put in 'time out' for the first time recently after sitting on Krishna's head.

They sleep in separate cots at their home near The Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, although Krishna's often unsettled through the night and snuggles into Moira's bed.

'I have to be careful to wake up before Trishna because I don't want her getting jealous,' says Moira, who has the alarm set for 4am, 5.15am and 6.30am to give Krishna medicine and milk.

Krishna is on drugs for her heart, kidneys and seizures, but she is sitting up unassisted and on the day we visit she rocks forwards on her knees for the first time as if to crawl.

Sometimes Moira whispers to her, 'I'm here for you and your sister is here for you, Krissy. God has made you struggle for a reason – perhaps because you're strong and you can cope.'

Looking back, Moira believes it was God's grace that saw both girls survive. Going into the 32-hour operation in November, she says she felt like she was going to Krishna's funeral. When Trishna responded well just two days after the operation, Moira sat with her on her lap for six hours and gave her the first cuddle of her life that she didn't have to share.

But it was when Krishna blew her a raspberry that she knew both had survived.

Watching her tickling the girls and anticipating their every need, you realise that, without this determined and compassionate woman, these twins would never have had a chance.

A twin herself, Moira, 45, founded Australia's Children First Foundation in 1999 to support her humanitarian work. She can't bear to think what might have happened if the girls hadn't been discovered by an aid worker.

When she flew them back to Australia with fellow guardian Atom Rahman, she had no idea of how close they would become and the emotional trauma she was opening herself to.

'Every time I signed the papers before a surgery, I knew they could end up brain-damaged or dead,' she says quietly.

To the public, the marathon operation to separate the twins was a medical triumph. Only Moira and her tight-knit circle of supporters – including friends Louise Ward and Patrick Weldon, Sister Fran, Margaret Smith, CEO of the Children First Foundation, and Maria Mardi, who was brought over from Bangladesh to help look after the twins – know how traumatic the past two years have been.

For Moira, one low point was in January 2009 after surgeons put two silicone bladders under the twins' scalps to stretch the skin so there would be plenty
to patch up the hole left by the operation. Unfortunately, Trishna scratched at the scar on her head, which caused an infection that led to septicemia.

Instinctively, Moira knew something was wrong even before the doctors spotted it.

'I was standing in ICU and I could see the fear in Krissy's eyes,' says Moira, her voice a raw whisper as tears fill her eyes. 'Trishy was sick, but I knew that if one got sick, the other would too, or if one died, the other would die.

'At that moment I couldn't cope anymore. I felt I'd done the wrong thing by Krissy and I had to ask a nurse to stay with her because I couldn't. I was just too scared.'

Regular little girls

These days Moira is determined to make the girls' lives as normal as possible. The day we meet, she's elated because she's been told by doctors that she can finally take the girls swimming. That and building a sandcastle on the beach are long-held dreams.

She is adamant that the girls are not turned into a freak show. With extraordinary good sense, she won't allow publication of images of them conjoined.

Even on the walls of her own home, the girls feature as individuals. And she baulks at people who ask to 'look' at the twins. 'No, you can't look at them, but would you like to meet them?' she responds.

Having raised two boys, Ahmed and Emmanuel, who she adopted from Iraq after they were born with severely deformed limbs, Moira had no plans to mother more kids. But that was before she looked into the faces of two frail and innocent girls.

'To them I am their mother, but they also have a birth mother in Bangladesh who we are in contact with. They're triply loved – by me, by Maria, who we brought over from Bangladesh, and by their birth mother.'

So could she go through something similar again?

'Everyone says that in five years I'll be ready to do something like this again, but truly I won't,' she says. 'I have lived through the Bosnian War, run orphanages for kids with AIDS, driven into Iraq on my own and been right next to bombs going off, but nothing was as hard as this.

With the girls there was nowhere to duck and nowhere to hide.'

As she pops Trishna in her highchair for dinner, and leans over for a cuddle from Krishna, I wonder out loud what energises her and keeps her going. She must be tired from the broken nights and stressed by months of constant worry.

But Moira just smiles and explains, 'When I was working in Calcutta with Mother Teresa she used to say, "Love until it hurts." And I do.'

More Lifestyle News

Daily horoscopes