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Guatemalans Hold Breath as Twins Suffer Setbacks

The toddler girls, back at UCLA for treatment, won homeland's hearts with triumphant return in January.

May 23, 2003|Jessica Garrison and Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writers

All over Guatemala on Thursday, from the streets of the capital to tiny towns in the countryside, strangers hoped and prayed that twin girls born joined at the head and separated at UCLA would survive their latest medical setback.

"We are all very worried," said Carlos Narciso Loarca, 62, who works in a hotel in Cuyotenango near the country's Pacific Coast. "We all love them very much."

Maria Teresa and Maria de Jesus Quiej Alvarez, now 22 months, made a triumphant departure from UCLA in January with tiaras perched atop their bandaged heads and were embraced in Guatemala as a miraculous symbol of hope for a strife-torn country.

But on Thursday, they were flown back to Los Angeles for more treatment. A UCLA neurosurgery resident, Dr. Andrew Cannestra, accompanied them on the private jet from Guatemala City to Burbank Airport.

UCLA officials would not discuss the girls' conditions, citing a new federal privacy law. But their return to the hospital came a day after Maria de Jesus suffered convulsions and was rushed to a Guatemalan hospital. Maria Teresa also has struggled in recent weeks and was in critical condition last month after a valve in her skull became infected. On May 2, she had surgery to replace the valve.

The complications came as a blow to the twins' parents, who had been happily settling in to a new life in Guatemala City with their recovering daughters.

Father Waits, Worries

On Thursday evening, the girls' father, Wenceslao Quiej, described himself as "un poco desesperado," a little desperate. He said he was not sure whether he and his wife would be able to come to Los Angeles, and said he was anxious for news.

"Have you heard anything yet?" he asked a reporter. "Can you tell me anything about the girls?"

The question was on many minds.

"Everyone is very sad," said Berta Duena Bquan of Mazatenango, where the girls were born. Guatemalans had been so happy that the twins were doing well, she said, "and then one fell ill, and then the other.... It's very unfortunate."

Jose Palacio, a community leader in a poor neighborhood in Guatemala City, said the twins were the talk of the street Thursday.

"Personally, I feel sad because they are children who have suffered a lot," he said. He said the news came as a shock because the girls had seemed to be doing well.

Many in Guatemala were grateful that the children could return to the United States for treatment, he said, but sorry that doctors in their own country couldn't take care of them.

That sentiment was echoed by Marvin Pinto, a Guatemalan lawyer who works in Los Angeles helping immigrants get documents from their homeland.

"It's good they are coming back," he said, but unfortunate that Guatemala doesn't have those services.

Many said they hoped that doctors at UCLA's Mattel Children's Center would be able to perform another miracle like the one that separated the girls.

The little Marias, as they are known in Guatemala, were first brought to the United States by the international charity Healing the Children. Then 10 months old, they faced away from each other and could not crawl or sit up. When one was bathed, the other had to be held upside down.

They were accompanied by their mother, Alba Leticia Alvarez, who spoke no English and could not read or write. Their father stayed behind in the tiny village of Belen, where he rose at 4 a.m. each day for a job bagging bananas that paid him less than $100 a month. Eventually, officials arranged for him to join his family in Los Angeles.

On Aug. 6, in a 23-hour operation that made headlines around the world, the girls were separated.

Though the procedure was risky, the girls appeared to be recovering. In the first days after the separation, nurses noticed them touching the tops of their heads, feeling for one another's presence. Later, they grew fascinated with each other's faces.

Maria de Jesus, who was the more timid sister before the separation, became ebullient, exploding with giggles and exchanging high fives with her nurses.

Maria Teresa convalesced more slowly, but eventually she also was moved out of the intensive care unit and began to learn to hold her head up.

When the girls and their family returned to Guatemala, they came home to very different circumstances.

The Guatemalan Pediatric Foundation arranged for the family to live in a comfortable three-bedroom house on the outskirts of the capital, and Quiej got a new job making prosthetic limbs across the street from the Foundation.

A Cheerful Routine

The girls and their mother settled into a cheerful routine of play time and visits to a baby gym for physical therapy.

In March, workers at the pediatric foundation shared pictures of the girls playing on brightly colored mats as physical therapists helped them retrain their muscles.

"It's good to be home," their father said in March. His daughters, he said, "are doing much better."

Maria de Jesus, he said, loved to grab his cell phone and pretend to talk on it. "Bye-bye," she would say, using words learned at UCLA.

Now, with his daughters girls back in the hospital and their conditions unknown, he said, "It is very hard."

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