HUALIEN CITY, TAIWAN, August 19 2003 (STAR) By Sheila Crisostomo  - Conjoined twins from a poor barangay in Pasil town in Kalinga province were successfully separated at the Tzu Chi Medical Center here by a team of prominent doctors.

Conjoined at the upper abdomen and chest, one-year-old Lea and Rachel Awel seemed fated to live under each other’s shadow for the rest of their lives.

But thanks to the Tzu Chi Foundation, which shouldered the cost of the operation, the girls now have a chance to live separate and normal lives.

The operation, which was undertaken by 60 doctors, nurses and other medical staff headed by Dr. Peng Hai Chai, director of the Tzu Chi Medical Center’s pediatric department, lasted seven hours and cost around US$300,000 or P17 million.

Marieta Awel, 25, the twins’ mother, said that it was a sort of rebirth for her daughters who are now recovering fast from the surgery.

"I prayed hard for the success of the operation and my prayers were answered. I am very grateful to Master Cheng and the Tzu Chi volunteers, doctors and nurses for giving my daughters a new life. I hope that their selfless spirit and pure heart will be imbibed by other people," Marieta said.

The Tzu Chi Foundation was established here 37 years ago by Master Cheng Yen, a 67-year-old female Buddhist monk. The organization is now extending medical assistance to the sick and the needy in 37 countries all over the world. According to the foundation, the words Tzu and Chi mean compassion and relief, respectively.

The separated twins were presented to media in Tzu Chi’s palatial Still Thought Hall here and among those present were Sen. Loren Legarda, who promised to help finance the girls’ education; her husband former Batangas governor Antonio Leviste, and Dr. James Dy, director of Chinese General Hospital in Manila where the girls will undergo a three-month rehabilitation therapy when they return home to the Philippines on Thursday.

Dy also promised to find jobs for the girls’ parents, Marieta and Andy, at the hospital so they would not have to go back to their hometown.

Lea and Rachel will practice walking, sitting and other movements as separate individuals. They will also be supplied with food and medicine to ensure their full recovery.

Prior to the operation, the Awels lived in Bantayan, a very remote barangay in Pasil, Kalinga province, which is not accessible by transportation and has no electricity.

Marieta said that with her husband’s irregular income of P50 a day for tilling other people’s land, she knew that they could never raise the money for the twins’ operation.

However, even with their condition, Marieta managed to bring her daughters to the Philippine Children’s Medical Center in Quezon City last January for evaluation and to seek possible assistance for the operation.

That day, volunteers of the Tzu Chi Foundation were in the hospital to bring a hydrocephalic patient for treatment and accidentally discovered the twins.

Alfredo Li, vice president of the Tzu Chi Foundation Philippines, said their discovery of the Awel twins was providential.

"We feel that Lea and Rachel have affinity with Tzu Chi because, firstly, we went to that hospital to bring a patient and we learned about them," Li said.

"Secondly, Taiwanese doctors were then scheduled to visit the Philippines to assess a Siamese twins from Jolo so they

were also able to check on the twins," he added.

"And thirdly, the twins were brought to Manila a week before the global alert against Severe Acute Respiratory System (SARS) was raised in April. Had they delayed the girls’ travel, we would have not been able to bring them here," Li emphasized.

Dr. Robert Sy, assistant head of the Tzu Chi’s medical team in the Philippines, explained that there was no need for blood transfusion because Tzu Chi doctors used ultrasonic vibration knife to cut on the twins faster. The procedure prevented possible blood loss which caused the death in June of Laleh and Ladan Bijani, the adult Iranian twins conjoined in the head who were operated on in Singapore.

Sy added that the most crucial and delicate part of the surgery was the separation of the twins’ liver but the procedure went on smoothly under the expertise of Dr. Lee Ming Ci of the Tzu Chi Medical Center.

According to Sy, conjoined twins are the result of an embryological accident when a developing embryo of identical twins ceases to split.

"Fertilized eggs split to form the eyes, the ears and so forth and so on. Sometimes, the splitting is so fast, forming identical twins. When the eggs, on the other hand, stop parting ways, conjoined twins are produced," Sy explained.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved