The Aguirre twins’ ‘medical journey’ | Inquirer Opinion

The Aguirre twins’ ‘medical journey’

Just to let you know that the Philippine Airlines Foundation, of which I was then the executive director, played a pivotal role in getting the craniopagus (joined at the head) Aguirre twins to the United States so that they could be safely separated. This involved more than just giving tickets; this also meant going the extra mile to find sponsors or help from other extraordinarily caring Filipinos.

The PAL Foundation frequently got similar requests for medical assistance, which is why it has the PAL Medical Travel Grants Program. Rare as conjoined twins are, the PAL Foundation was involved in helping to find medical assistance for several pairs (as well as for the more usual medical cases like burns and congenital heart disease).


For the Aguirre twins, the PAL Foundation worked with Children’s Chance Connecticut, through the late Dorita H. Urrata who, as a child in Manila during World War II, was imprisoned at the UST with other citizens of Allied countries. Urrata helped several other PAL Medical Travel grantees to get medical care from the best hospitals in the East Coast such as Yale University Medical Center. As usual, she made the rounds among her doctor friends for the Aguirre twins. Dr. Jim Goodrich of Montefiore in the Bronx responded but first, he wanted the twins checked out by his old classmate, Dr. Willy G. Lopez, a Filipino neurosurgeon at the Philippine General Hospital, to see whether they were indeed separable. While still a surgery resident, Lopez was part of the team that successfully separated female craniopagus twins from Samar. One of them died of complications afterwards, but the other lived to adulthood.

The PAL Foundation brought the Aguirre twins with their mother and grandmother from Bacolod to Manila, and had them stay for free with one of their partners, the Religious of the Good Shepherd at the Welcome House in Paco. Doctor Lopez asked Dr. Kenneth Tan of Cardinal Santos Medical Center to do the twins’ MRI for free so that he could get a clearer picture of how viable their separation was. To clear the twins for travel to the United States, the late Dr. Fe Del Mundo, one of the greatest Filipino pediatricians, personally examined them, and generously had all their other work-ups done for free at her hospital.


At first, the US Non-Immigrant Visa Section refused to give Carl and Clarence Aguirre medical treatment visas, insisting that they could get their separation surgery done in the Philippines. We did not have funding for that here, not even for the PGH charity ward with all its attendant discomforts and high risks of infection. Meanwhile in New York, Dr. Jim Goodrich had found sponsors. Enter the Philippine mass media: GMA News and the Inquirer both featuring the Aguirre twins’ plight, and in due time their US medical treatment visas were issued. Their maternal grandmother had no visa, so I accompanied Arlene Aguirre and the twins to New York.

Doctor Lopez was invited by the Montefiore team to be a lead surgeon (the other one, Goodrich of course, his classmate), as none of them had any experience with this kind of separation surgery. Doctor Lopez was given a special license by the New York State Medical Board to operate on the Aguirre twins. Doctor Lopez was key, beginning with their preparatory surgery in 2003.

Doctor Lopez returned to New York in 2004 for the actual separation surgery. By then, the PAL Foundation was able to assist the twins’ maternal grandmother to get a US visitor’s visa after she had been repeatedly refused, and so she was able to be with her daughter Arlene, the twins’ mother, and to provide her with much needed moral support. During the separation surgery, Doctor Lopez worked on Clarence, the more typical twin.

The case of the Aguirre twins had a wonderful “ripple effect” for other Filipino children in need. Doctor Lopez continued to donate surgery to other PAL Foundation Medical Travel grantees. Even Doctor Tan gave free or greatly discounted imaging tests to PAL Foundation’s Medical Travel grantees.


Maria Carmen “Menchu” Aquino Sarmiento is a former executive director of PAL Foundation.

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