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Former conjoined twins leave hospital

23-hour surgery separated them in August

Adorned with feather boas and sporting plastic tiaras over their bandages, the twins leave the hospital Monday.
Adorned with feather boas and sporting plastic tiaras over their bandages, the twins leave the hospital Monday.

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CNN's Elizabeth Cohen reports on the twins' release from the hospital (January 14)
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CNN's Elizabeth Cohen reports on the twins' recovery
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• Illustrations: Separating twinsexternal link

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Sporting princess crowns and bandages, twin girls born joined at the skull left the hospital Monday, five months after they were separated in a complicated and lengthy operation.

Adorned in colorful feathers and riding in matching strollers, the infants accompanied their parents in a jet bound for their home in Guatemala.

Hundreds of medical personnel, social workers and therapists helped care for Maria de Jesus and Maria Teresa Quiej Alvarez, said Dr. Edward McCabe, physician in chief at Mattel Children's Hospital at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"They enabled [the girls] to overcome an astonishing physical obstacle and to launch independently their healthy lives," McCabe said.

The twins, now 17 months old, were joined at the skull the first 377 days of their lives, until an international team separated them in a 23-hour surgery in August.

"It just shows what we can do when we do it together," said Dr. Henry Kawamoto Jr., the twins' plastic surgeon.

"As the twins go back to Guatemala ... we're exporting the message: 'People of the world, we can work together and bring a lot of joy.'"

The girls parents are Alba Leticia Alvarez, 23, and Wenceslao Quiej Lopez, 21. Lopez, a former banana packer who earned the equivalent of $64 a week, thanked doctors, staff and Federal Express, which is taking the family to its home in rural Guatemala.

The physicians donated their time, and the hospital accepted the twins' case knowing the only reimbursement for their treatment would come through donations, McCabe said. A hospital spokesman said the surgery and medical care totaled $2 million.

'Miracles do happen'

Chris Embleton, co-founder of the organization that brought the girls to the hospital's attention, presented hospital officials with donation checks totaling just over $470,000.

"It was a year ago that we first found out about the twins, and we could only hope and pray for a miracle. We got it. We absolutely have it," Embleton said. "These girls represent to the world that miracles do happen."

After the initial operation, Maria Teresa required three more surgeries to remove a buildup of blood in her brain. She also suffered hearing loss in one ear and will have to wear a hearing aid.

Despite the developmental difficulties, the girls have made progress since their surgery -- they can now grab an object like a rattle.

Doctors said the twins could have been released last month, but the medical team that will care for them in Guatemala needed more time to prepare.

In Guatemala, the twins will begin physical therapy at a private hospital. They can expect more operations, such as a procedure that encourages hair growth on the affected parts of their scalps.

Doctors think conjoined twins result when the usual process in which twins are formed goes awry.

In rare instances, the single egg that would normally divide into two, creating identical twins, does not wholly separate. As a result, some of the body parts are fused, according to experts.

Conjoined twins are stillborn in 40 percent of cases. Another 35 percent of them survive until their first birthday. Only about 2 percent of the twins are born joined at the head.

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