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Staff bids farewell to separated twins

By David Zisser

Jan. 13, 2003 9:00 p.m.

Formerly conjoined twins Maria Teresa and Maria de Jesus Quiej
Alvarez left for Guatemala yesterday after their seven-month stay
at UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital following
separation surgery last August.

At a farewell press conference yesterday morning, the twins made
an appearance with their parents. Both girls, affectionately called
“the dos Maritas,” were dressed in tiaras and pink and
purple feather boas, though they still have bandages on their
heads.

The 17-month-old twins were joined at the head and underwent a
23-hour separation surgery on Aug. 6, 2002 at UCLA. They were
scheduled to leave in late October of last year, but minor
complications delayed their departure.

The girls have had a significant effect on the medical staff who
cared for them and on volunteers from Healing the Children, the
non-profit group responsible for bringing them to UCLA.

“These kids are really special,” said Dr. Henry
Kawamoto, the lead plastic surgeon on the twins’ medical
team.

“They’ll steal your heart just like that.”

For the nurses in particular, yesterday’s farewell press
conference was a bittersweet affair.

The nurses were in constant contact with the girls, toting them
around the hospital in red wagons and providing day-to-day care.
The twins even competed for the nurses’ attention.

Maria de Jesus was known to drop her bottle in order to keep the
nurses close, and she raises one hand for “high-fives”
and blows air kisses.

“(We were) excited for them, sad for us,” said
Gayane Minanian, one of the nurses who worked on the pediatric
floor with the twins.

Another nurse, Harlika DeVera, looks forward to seeing them
again.

“It’ll be exciting to see how they grow up,”
she said.

The twins and their family celebrated Christmas and New
Year’s at the hospital with the medical staff and Healing the
Children volunteers, further strengthening the feelings those
around the twins had for them.

Maria Teresa and Maria de Jesus arrived at UCLA on June 7 after
traveling in a corporate jet donated by FedEx. FedEx also provided
transportation back to Guatemala.

As craniopagus twins, or twins joined at the head, “the
dos Maritas” are rare. Craniopagus twins make up only 2
percent of conjoined twins.

Being joined at the head created unique complications. Although
the girls had distinct, separate brains, they shared a number of
arteries and veins that ran from one to the other.

In addition, skin had to be stretched with saline
solution-filled balloons in order to ensure that there was enough
skin to cover their skulls after the separation surgery was
complete.

Because of the unique nature of the twins’ condition, UCLA
accepted their case and has absorbed the bulk of the $2 million
treatment and surgery.

Healing the Children director Cris Embleton presented two checks
at yesterday’s press conference to Dr. Michael Karpf,
director of the UCLA Medical Center. One check was worth $450,000,
given by an anonymous donor. The second check, the result of
individual donations made to Healing the Children, was for $20,
562.

The twins’ parents, who have generally avoided the press,
made a rare appearance at yesterday’s press conference,
though only the father, Wenceslao Quiej Lopez, spoke.

He spoke in Spanish, thanking the medical staff, making specific
references to Dr. Kawamoto and to Dr. Jorge Lazareff, the lead
neurosurgeon on the twins’ medical team. He also thanked
Embleton and FedEx.

The twins will stay in a private hospital in Guatemala City for
about a month. They will receive intensive physical and
occupational therapy to help them overcome developmental
delays.

After their hospital stay, they will go home to a new house,
constructed by friends and family, according to Quiej Lopez.

Accompanying the twins on the plane were their parents, Healing
the Children volunteers, and a seven-person UCLA medical team. The
team, which will stay in Guatemala with the twins for a few days,
includes Dr. Lazareff, four nurses, a pediatrician and a physical
therapist.

Besides helping in the twins’ transition, the UCLA medical
team will take on other tasks, including helping the medical
personnel in Guatemala, according to Dr. Edward McCabe, the
physician-in-chief at Mattel Children’s Hospital.

Although the twins will have to undergo minor surgeries in the
future, such as removing skin grafts from their scalps, along with
rehabilitation, the twins have made significant progress.

Maria de Jesus holds her head straight by herself, demonstrating
that she has developed the muscles in her head, neck and shoulders
that were unused when she was joined to her sister.

Maria Teresa, though recovering slower than her sister, can hold
her head up, track movement with her eyes and turn her head from
side to side.

Doctors recently fitted Maria Teresa with a hearing aid,
however, to help her overcome some hearing loss that was discovered
after the separation, though they do not yet know how serious the
impairment is.

Despite such complications, Karpf told the doctors that the
twins could not go home until they were fully able to do so.

“When was the last time an HMO said that?” Kawamoto
added.

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