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'Two Marias' Could Go Home in Six Weeks

September 19, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The recovery of formerly conjoined twins is on track, and doctors at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital on Wednesday said the 1-year-olds may be returning to Guatemala within six weeks.

"The twins are much better today than they were last week, and they are not as well today as they are going to be next week," said Dr. Jorge Lazareff, the pediatric neurosurgeon coordinating the girls' care.

Maria Teresa Quiej Alvarez and Maria de Jesus, whose heads were separated in a 22-hour operation on Aug. 6, remain in serious but stable condition, doctors said. The complex surgery required that doctors cut through bone, redirect shared blood vessels and cover exposed brain tissue with skin.

Ever since, the "two Marias," as they are known among the hospital's nursing staff, have continued to impress the 50 UCLA physicians, surgeons and nurses who donated an estimated $1.5 million worth of care.

"Maria de Jesus is very playful, and likes to eat," said nurse Clarice Marsh. "She blows kisses and plays peekaboo with her blanket."

Maria Teresa, she said, "is not as playful. But she likes to be held and is slowly becoming more interactive."

Lazareff said there is "no reason to believe that both girls will not have similar potential of any other 1-year-old."

The acute care "will finish by the end of October," he said. "Guatemala has very good medical care and is eager to take them."

UCLA plastic surgeons on Tuesday completed a series of procedures to promote skin growth in sections of the girls' scalps that are healing slowly.

"We cleaned debris from Maria Teresa's skin flaps and applied a special skin substitute that encourages cell growth and promotes healing," said Dr. Henry Kawamoto Jr.

The same procedure was performed on her sister during routine surgery on Aug. 30, and her scalp has grown enough to cover her skull.

Now, Maria de Jesus enjoys watching nurses read books to her, eats solid food, holds her own bottle, and "laughs at nothing in particular because she's just a happy baby," said nurse Michelle Murray.

Maria Teresa, who has undergone three surgical procedures to remove blood from her brain, is recovering more slowly. But nurses said she makes eye contact with visitors, reacts to touch and responds to musical toys.

"No one knew how they'd progress, because the operation had never been done before," Murray said. "But I saw them this morning, and they're doing beautifully."

Also on Wednesday, U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao visited the twins' medical team and urged that more people consider careers in nursing.

"The nation is spellbound by what you've done," Chao told the nurses.

The parents, Alba Leticia Alvarez, 22, and Wenceslao Quiej Lopez, 21, were unavailable for comment. But nurses said they visit the girls daily, helping feed them and change their diapers.

In the meantime, hospital officials have been preparing to transfer the girls to a Guatemalan hospital for continued rehabilitation.

"We'll be keeping in touch with these twins," Marsh said. "We're going to know them forever."

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