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Guatemalan Twins Settling Into Hospital

January 16, 2003

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) _ Guatemalan twins born joined at the head are settling into their own private hospital wing and will soon move into a new house in the capital.

It’s a long way from their village in a depressed sugar-growing region, and it’s a life most poor Guatemalans will never see. Yet in a country with Central America’s highest infant mortality rate, few begrudge Maria Teresa Quiej Alvarez and her sister, Maria de Jesus, their privileged care.

The twins returned home as heroes Monday, five months after doctors in Los Angeles surgically separated them. When the girls are strong enough, they and their parents will move into a house donated by the private Guatemalan Pediatric Foundation.

But while Guatemalans celebrate the miracle of the ``little Marias,″ thousands of children die of common illnesses like diarrhea and struggle to receive attention for the most basic health problems. In Guatemala, quality health care is only available to those who can pay _ and the majority of people here can’t.

Life-threatening malnutrition is rampant and there isn’t one pediatric hospital in the country. Fifty-nine toddlers out of every 1,000 born here die before their fifth birthdays.

``Guatemala can be very dangerous for children,″ said Federico Ranero, pediatric director at the exclusive hospital where the Marias are staying.

The twins’ special treatment is not lost on many here _ but almost no one is angry about it.

``I think the Marias are wonderful,″ said Reyna Araselli, who makes monthly bus trips to the capital to get blood transfusions for her 7-year-old daughter Noveli. ``As a parent I see what happened as a miracle.″

Noveli usually has the treatment and goes home. But this month there were complications, and she was hospitalized for two weeks.

Except for an initial fee of about $230, the state is paying for Noveli’s treatment. But her mother ran out of money for a hotel room after nine days _ and no one has offered her the $5 a night she needs.

Instead, Araselli persuaded security guards to let her and her 8-month-old son stay in the hospital waiting room _ sleeping on a rainbow-colored blanket on the white-tile floor.

``One does feel a little bit left behind,″ Araselli said. ``After the Marias, we understand what kind of treatment can be available in Guatemala. But it is only available in special cases.″

At Guatemala City’s largest public hospital, Lesbia Chiroy and her 2-year-old daughter Maria sat in a hallway, waiting to be allowed into the pediatric ward.

The family spent an hour on a bus to bring Maria for 7 a.m. surgery to correct a hernia. Six hours after the operation was scheduled to begin, the family still lacked the state registration cards that would allow the toddler to receive the operation for free.

Chiroy said she was a little upset about the contrast between the care the twins are receiving and her Maria’s experience.

``I have eight children and all have health problems,″ said Chiroy. ``No one bought me a house.″

Ludwig Ovalle, medical director of the foundation that donated the house for the twins, said he hoped their return would call attention to Guatemala’s underfunded public health care system.

``There are many people here who have to fight for everything and they especially have to fight for medical care,″ he said. ``But we think this case offers an example″ of how to provide quality Guatemalan medical treatment.

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