RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Once-conjoined toddler girls from the Dominican Republic are heading home for Christmas.
Maria and Teresa Tapia and their mother, Lisandra Sanatis, and their aunt Mari Reynaldo flew out of Richmond early Tuesday.
"I'm getting home a little bit late to prepare a big feast but I'll do my best to have a good Christmas," Sanatis said through a translator.
First things first, though: she plans to give her other two sons "lots and lots of kisses and hugs" when she returns home, she said.
The girls underwent nearly daylong surgery Nov. 7 at Children's Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University. The twins were conjoined at the chest, and a team led by VCU surgeon David Lanning divided the twins' liver, pancreas and other shared organ systems and reconstructed their abdominal walls.
The 20-month-old girls were the guests of honor Monday at a going-away party, where they wore matching dresses and ate hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, and cake. Medical professionals, volunteers and others who helped them during their stay got a chance to see the girls one last time before they left the place they'd called home since early September.
Sanatis thanked volunteers with World Pediatric Project, the nonprofit surgical-care provider for children in Central America and the Caribbean that sponsored the toddlers' medical care. She also had special thanks for the VCU medical staff that made a miracle possible.
"God bless your hands and the work they do," she said through a translator.
Doctors say their recovery is going well and give them an excellent prognosis. Maria weighs about 23 pounds and Teresa about 28, and the disparities between the two caused by how they shared their organs will continue to narrow, Lanning said.
Their distinct personalities also have emerged. Teresa now seems more lively, when before she was passive and lethargic because she was taking in a large portion of the calories that Maria ate because of the configuration of their shared digestive system.
After suffering some separation anxiety, literally, for a short time after the surgery, "they're now happy to do their own thing," Lanning said.
The girls and their family are celebrities in the Dominican Republic, and well-wishers there have tracked their surgery and recovery. First lady Margarita CedeÃ±o de FernÃ¡ndez is among those expected to greet the twins in person upon their return home.
President Leonel FernÃ¡ndez has invited Lanning and VCU team members for a reception in their honor next month, Lanning and World Pediatric Project officials said.
For his part, Lanning said the experience of the medical staff and teamwork made the separation a success, despite some challenges posed by the twins' anatomical structures. He feels a tremendous sense of satisfaction and plans to continue working through WPP to train Dominican physicians on performing surgical procedures.
Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU: http://www.childrenshosp-richmond.org/CMS/index.php
World Pediatric Project: http://www.worldpediatricproject.org/