Separated twins return to Guatemala

Guatemalan conjoined twin Maria de Jesus, right, is watched by her parents Alba Leticia Tahual Alvarez, left, and Wenceslao Quiej Lopez, while Maria Teresa Quiej rests in the other bed in their room at El Pilar Hospital Monday in Guatemala City.

The Associated Press
Published: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 13, 2003 at 11:53 p.m.
GUATEMALA CITY - Twin Guatemalan girls born fused at the skull returned home Monday after successful surgery to the welcoming arms of families, friends and dignitaries.
"These little girls make all of Guatemala smile," said sculptor Gloria Chanex, who sells clay pots in a Guatemala City tourist market. "Many people outside Guatemala will watch the return. A happy country is what they will see."
Their grandfathers held the drowsy twins above his head, the girls' dark blue dresses flapping in the wind, as news photographers snapped pictures and scores of onlookers applauded.
The 17-month-old girls were also greeted by First Lady Evelyn de Portillo and U.S. Ambassador John Hamilton as they were carried off a private plane from Los Angeles.
Maria Teresa Quiej Alvarez and Maria de Jesus were separated Aug. 6 in a 23-hour operation in Los Angeles.
Known in Guatemala as "The Little Marias," the twins are seen as a symbol of hope in a country where many people have little to look forward to.
They were to receive the best medical care the country has to offer. Ambulances carried the girls to a private wing in one of the Guatemalan capital's most exclusive hospitals.
After a few days to assimilate to their country's climate and altitude, the twins will move into the new house a private pediatric foundation built for them on the outskirts of the Guatemalan capital.
There, a team of nurses will provide 24-hour care for the twins and medical training for their mother, Alba Leticia Alvarez, 23.
Hours earlier, the sisters emerged in matching strollers from Mattel Children's Hospital at the University of California at Los Angeles.
"I am very grateful to all the staff," their father, Wenceslao Quiej Lopez, 21, said before boarding the plane.
The father, who previously worked as a banana packer, earning the equivalent of just $64 a week, said he was especially grateful to a charitable group that has been building a new home for the family in their village in Guatemala.
The toddlers' return home was delayed to give them time to recover and allow Guatemalan health authorities to prepare for their arrival.
The cost of the surgery and medical care totaled $2 million, said UCLA spokesman Dan Page. Of that, $470,000 was defrayed by donations - mostly an anonymous $450,000 gift.
"We are happy to see them go, but it is sad for us because we are losing them," pediatric nurse Gayane Minanian.
Maria Teresa, whom doctors recently fitted with a hearing aid, has lagged behind her sister in her development. Both girls have yet to walk or begin talking.
Dr. Henry Kawamoto, lead plastic surgeon for the twins' medical team, said he expects the girls to catch up.
"All pun intended, two heads are better than one," Kawamoto said.

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