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Separated twins bounce into life as individuals

The conjoined Guatemalan twins who were separated in the United States are happy and ''moving incredibly fast'' since returning to their homeland last month.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2003

GUATEMALA CITY -- The formerly conjoined twins Maria de Jesus and Maria Teresa, who were separated by surgeons in California last August, have begun to blossom in their new home here, their doctors said this week.

For the first time in their lives, the little Marias, as they are known throughout Central America, nap in something other than a hospital bed. Their parents have become primary caretakers. After a year and a half, including seven months in Los Angeles where doctors performed the $2-million separation, they are finally a family.

In turn, the twins have responded, gradually discovering who they are as individuals apart from one another, said their father, Wenceslao Quiej, during a recent interview. Maria de Jesus has grown into the outgoing one -- a brilliant smiler -- while her sister has taken on a more serious demeanor, he said.

"The girls are sleeping at home now and they have become so much happier," said Quiej, 21. Doctors noted the twins' steady progress since they returned to Guatemala on Jan. 13.

Maria de Jesus has learned to sit up and now playfully tugs at anything within reach, said Dr. Ludwig Ovalle of the Pediatric Foundation of Guatemala, which worked with the nonprofit Healing the Children to bring the girls to the United States and now oversees their treatment.

Maria Teresa, who has lagged behind developmentally, has gained better control of her neck muscles and her left hand, which had remained clenched since birth, Ovalle said. In recent days, he said, she has grown more communicative, smiling and following people with her eyes.

"They're moving incredibly fast," he said.

When the twins arrived in Guatemala, they spent nine days in a private hospital so they could readjust to the altitude and climate. Then, on Jan. 22, the girls moved into a modest, middle-class house bought by the foundation on the outskirts of the city.

The doctors had worried whether the young parents, who had never had children before, were prepared to provide daily care, Ovalle said. (Quiej's wife, Alba Leticia Alvarez, who is 22, won't speak with reporters.)

But, with a part-time nurse provided by the foundation, the twins have continued to grow stronger, Ovalle said.

At the moment, they visit physical and speech therapists once a week, while doctors at the foundation monitor how well their scalps are healing. Next week, tests will be performed to estimate how old they are in terms of physical and mental maturity. Their brain development had been slowed by their conjoined skulls, Ovalle said.

In the coming years, he added, the twins face more surgeries to remove skin grafts and allow them to grow full heads of hair.

No one knows when the family might move back to the impoverished village of Belen, about 120 miles away on the Pacific coast, where Quiej had earned $2 a day bagging bananas. At the very least, Ovalle said, the twins will remain here for the next two years.

Meanwhile, the family tries to adjust to life in the capital, a busier existence than Quiej and Alvarez have known. The foundation has given Quiej a job where he will be trained to make leg and arm casts. His wife is learning to juggle caring for the toddlers and the home.

Their new house, white with violet trim, is distinguishable from others on the block only by the freshness of its paint. It is filled with brand-new furniture, a television, a microwave, piles of donated toys -- everything they could need, Quiej said.

It is a long way from the dirt-floored shack that he and his wife had shared with family members on the coast, Quiej said.

"My place is Belen and I want to be there," he said. "But for the well being of the girls, we have to be here for now."

Neighbors in their gated community said they feel they have a responsibility to watch over the country's most famous children. They have held meetings to discuss the topic and, in the hour before the family arrived, women from the block mopped and dusted their house one final time.

Some said they wonder how anyone could manage the pressures of parenting with such public attention. Others want to help because they believe the family has been through enough.

"As a mother, when your child has even a fever, it is very tough," said Wendi Reyes, 25, a mother of two girls who lives across the street. "Imagine what it has been like for her."

With a new sense of security that the neighborhood provides, Quiej said, the family has begun to look forward to the future and dream of baby steps and first words. At last, the daily glare of celebrity has started to fade, Quiej said.

"We have more privacy to be family and that's what I appreciate," he said.

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