Two toddler girls from the Dominican Republic who were conjoined at birth and separated in a complex and difficult surgery in the U.S. returned to their homeland Tuesday to a presidential welcome.
President Leonel Fernandez and first lady Margarita Cedeno greeted the girls upon their arrival from Virginia and celebrated them at a ceremony at the National Palace.
"The Dominican Republic has these two little angels, they are our Christmas gifts," an emotional Cedono said while welcoming the girls, Maria and Teresa Tapia.
Their father, Marino Tapia, who hadn't seen them since they left for surgery in the U.S. in August, wept with joy when they arrived. "They said 'papa' as soon as they saw me," he told The Associated Press.
The girls and their mother, Lisandra Sanatis, traveled to the U.S. with assistance from Cedeno, who sought international aid for the surgey after they were born in a public hospital in Santo Domingo joined at the abdomen and sharing a liver and pancreas.
The girls underwent nearly daylong surgery Nov. 7 at Children's Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University. Surgeon David Lanning divided the twins' liver, pancreas and other shared organ systems and reconstructed their abdominal walls.
Doctors say their recovery is going well and give them an excellent prognosis. Lanning said the experience and teamwork of the medical staff explained the procedure's success, despite challenges posed by the twins' anatomical structures.
Teresa weighs 28 pounds, five pounds more than Maria, with the disparity stemming from how they shared their organs, Lanning said.
As such physical differences diminish, their distinct personalities have begun to emerge. Teresa is now livelier after appearing lethargic while she was taking in many of the calories that Maria ate because of the configuration of their shared digestive system.
"Maria, who had a smaller portion of the liver, is doing now well and is eating more," said Cedeno.
The twins had suffered separation anxiety, literally, for a short time after the surgery, but "they're now happy to do their own thing," Lanning said.
The girls and their family are celebrities in the Dominican Republic, where well-wishers have tracked their surgery and recovery.
Fernandez has invited university medical team members for a reception in their honor next month, Lanning said.
Associated Press writer Zinie Chen Sampson contributed from Richmond, Virginia.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects when they left for US for surgery.)