January 17, 2003

Formerly Conjoined Twins Go Home

After a landmark 23-hour separation surgery on Aug. 6 and a seven-month stay at UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital, formerly conjoined twins Maria de Jesus and Maria Teresa Quiej Alvarez returned home to Guatemala on Jan 13 with their parents.

At right, Maria de Jesus plays with the feeding tube of her sister, Maria Teresa. Although both girls eat solid food, Maria Teresa has been unable to consume enough calories because she sucks and chews more slowly.

To help UCLA cover the cost for the twins’ care, Cris Embleton, co-founder of Healing the Children, the nonprofit group that brought the twins to UCLA Medical Center, presented two checks to hospital officials at a farewell press conference.

The first check was a gift of $450,000 from an anonymous donor. The second check was for $20,652 in individual donations from people around the world wishing to contribute to the 17-month-old sisters’ medical expenses.

“We deeply appreciate the outpouring of generosity and good will from every person who has contributed,” said Dr. Michael Karpf, director of the UCLA Medical Center. “We want to thank Healing the Children and its extraordinary anonymous donor — as well as everyone in the community and around the world — who opened their hearts to help UCLA pay for the twins’ medical care.”

Accompanied by their parents, Alba Leticia Alvarez and Wenceslao Quiej Lopez, the twin girls will fly home in style, thanks to the loan of a corporate jet from FedEx Express.

“In its 30-year history, FedEx has been called on to handle many special shipments,” said Ken May, senior vice president, United States, for FedEx Express. “None, however, have been more precious or have touched more hearts than Maria Teresa and Maria de Jesus.”

The twins, affectionately nicknamed the “Dos Marias,” will be taken to a private hospital in Guatemala City. The sisters will continue intensive physical and occupational therapy to improve their fine and gross motor skills and to help them overcome developmental delays caused by their previous condition.

Now that the girls are medically stable, Guatemalan therapists will be able to work with them beyond the nearly two hours of physical and occupational therapy the twins received at UCLA five days a week.

“Maria de Jesus and Maria Teresa cannot be judged by the same developmental milestones as other children their age,” Lazareff said. “They did not have the same early opportunities to learn how to stand and develop other motor skills. Their brains must gradually readapt to a new reality where they function as separate persons.”

Nonetheless, UCLA physicians remain optimistic that Maria Teresa and Maria de Jesus will fully recover from their dramatic surgery and lead normal lives.

“The twins have made fantastic progress,” said Dr. Henry Kawamoto, lead plastic surgeon for the twins’ medical team. “We’ve especially seen a change in Maria Teresa in the last few months. We’re sad to see the girls leave, but it will be particularly hard on the nurses who have cared for them all this time.”

Maria de Jesus holds her head straight by herself, demonstrating that she’s developed the muscles in her head, neck and shoulders that were unused when she was joined to her sister. Previously, her head tilted to one side. She can roll over by herself, sits with little help, plays well and improves steadily.

While recovering more slowly than her sister, Maria Teresa has also improved. She can hold her head up, track movement with her eyes, turn her head from side to side to look at people and objects, and start to roll over but needs help.

Doctors recently fitted Maria Teresa with a hearing aid to help her overcome some hearing loss that was discovered after the separation surgery. Since then, she smiles, kisses her doll, makes sounds, reacts to visitors and exhibits more of the spirit she displayed before she was separated from her sister. Doctors say it is too early to assess the degree of her hearing impairment, but are encouraged at her improvement.

“When we brought the girls to UCLA, we knew we couldn’t take them home without their smiles,” said Embleton of Healing the Children. “Both Maria Teresa and Maria de Jesus have regained their smiles since the surgery, so we think it’s a good omen for a smooth trip home.”

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