Once Conjoined Twins Return to Guatemala

Jan. 13, 2003 — -- The formerly conjoined twins who were separated in a landmark surgery that lasted nearly 24 hours have returned to Guatemala with their parents.

The 17-month-old sisters, Maria Teresa and Maria de Jesus Quiej Alvarez, were greeted at the Guatemala City airport by their grandfathers, who held the drowsy twins above their head as news photographers snapped pictures and onlookers applauded. The girls were also greeted by Guatemalan first lady Evelyn de Portillo and U.S. Ambassador John Hamilton as they were carried off a private plane from Los Angeles.

"The Little Marias" are expected to receive the best medical care the country has to offer. Ambulances took the girls to a private wing in one of the Guatemalan capital's most exclusive hospitals. They will then move into a new home: a private pediatric foundation built for them on the outskirts of the capital, where a team of nurses will provide 24-hour care for the twins and medical training for their mother.

Before takeoff, the sisters' parents joined doctors, nurses and hospital staff for a farewell this morning at the Mattel Children's Hospital at the University of California, Los Angeles.

UCLA surgeons Dr. Jorge Lazareff and Dr. Henry Kawamoto, who led a team of more than 50 physicians, nurses and medical staff in treating the twins' rare condition, said the infant girls, who had been joined at the head, seem fascinated by one another's faces since their separation.

"They smile at each other, and they're getting introduced to each other in a different way," said Kawamoto, the plastic surgeon in the operation, on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.

Kawamoto said the girls' personalities have changed since the surgery. The more reluctant sister has become more rambunctious, while the other sister has mellowed out a bit.

"We'll see how they develop later in life, but each one of them is a separate individual," Kawamoto said. "They have different personalities and that further compelled us to go ahead with this surgical procedure."

Lazareff, the lead neurosurgeon in the delicate operation, said he is very pleased with the twins' development since the surgery.

"I would like to emphasize that two weeks ago, they were not doing as well as they will be doing two weeks from now," Lazareff said. "So they are progressing rapidly, and if we look back at how they were in October, they are outstandingly well," he said.

At their farewell press conference, the girls, who spent approximately eight months at UCLA, wore princess tiaras over their bandaged heads.

Their parents, Alba Leticia Alvarez, 23, and Wenceslao Quiej Lopez, 21, left the hospital for a five-hour flight to Guatemala City aboard a Federal Express business jet.

Lopez said thanked the hospital staff and the charity groups that are helping to build the family a place to live in Guatemala.

Girls Still Tilt Heads

The girl's skulls were separated during a 23-hour surgery on Aug. 5, 2002, at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital. Doctors say the girls are in excellent clinical condition, and have been undergoing physical and occupational therapy. Though their development is about four months behind other children their age, the girls are expected to catch up. Both have a tendency to tilt their heads because their muscles and bones have grown that way.

At the private hospital in Guatemala City, where they face additional surgeries to gradually stretch their scalps to eliminate skin grafts and allow them to grow full heads of hair. They will also have physical therapy to learn to crawl, sit and balance themselves.

Currently, Maria de Jesus sits in a high chair and moves her arms when her father plays music for her. She loves food, especially spaghetti. Maria Teresa used to be the attention-seeker but since the surgery she has become the more subdued of the two, and seems to be struggling more since the surgery. This may be because of her recently discovered hearing impairment in one ear, possibly because of the surgery. A feeding tube has helped Maria Teresa gain weight.

Healing the Children, a nonprofit group that helps find medical care for children in underdeveloped countries, approached UCLA about the girls' case. The surgery would have cost more then $1.5 million, but was donated by UCLA.

The girls' grandfathers, with the help of U.S. charity groups, built the family's new three-room house in Belen, 125 miles south of Guatemala City. Before they went to California, the girls and their parents were living in a shack with other relatives.