CHONGQING, China — In a hallway at the Xinqiao Hospital of the Third Military Medical University, Liao Guojun spends his days pacing, sleeping on borrowed beds and hoping for news. His daughters are only feet away, behind a locked door at the end of the hall, but he rarely sees them.
Liao’s children, unusual conjoined twins born May 5, lie behind the closed and guarded door of the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. The room’s windows have been covered with paper, preventing curious gawkers from stealing glances of China’s notorious newborns.
The twin girls, who suffer from a condition that gave them two separate heads but one body, are off-limits not just to the curious, but more importantly, their own parents and family members.
Their father sees them for a few minutes each day and can’t touch them. Their mother is more than two hours away, recovering in the hospital where the babies were born. Relatives — grandparents, aunts and others — who gathered here to meet the twins, were shuffled through the room so quickly they can barely describe the girls.
“It’s not enough time, it’s too rushed. Every day I have only two or three minutes to see the babies,” said Liao, the twins’ father. “I only go in for a moment, take a look and then it’s over. They’re behind glass, isolated from the outside. I can only see the surface and can’t touch them.”
It is unclear why this military hospital has taken control of the twins, paying for their medical care and making all decisions about how best to keep them alive. Rumors swirl around the waiting room that the order to save the babies came from the highest levels of Chongqing’s government, perhaps even from Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai himself.
Such rumors are impossible to confirm. The hospital won’t talk to foreign media and has given only brief interviews to Chinese reporters with the barest of facts: The babies share 1.5 hearts and two spines. Doctors are working to determine the size and state of their organs, but the girls could never be separated without risking one or both of their lives. Their chances of survival are maybe one in five.
For his part, the twins’ father seems only mildly frustrated at his lack of access and information. He and his wife, in gratitude for the babies’ care, named the twins Xinxin and Qiaoqiao, after the hospital. Without the free medical care and firm-handed guidance, they wouldn’t have known what to do.
The couple was supposed to be celebrating now, relaxing and getting to know their first child. Liang, 29, and his wife, Bao Qiaoying, 25, come from small farming towns hundreds of miles apart. They met while working in neighboring factories in Guangdong province; he in a textile mill, she in a printing plant.
|Liao Guojun, 29, spent the bulk of his day in this lobby, waiting on news of his twin daughters. (Kathleen E. McLaughlin/GlobalPost)|
They learned she was pregnant and married in October, and then several weeks ago returned to his hometown in Sichuan province to give birth.
Everything was fine until the couple had a third ultrasound before delivery, when doctors told them their babies had two heads and one body. The couple was devastated, but here stories diverge.
The local hospital in Suining told Chinese media that the couple wanted an abortion, but she went into labor and the procedure would have been deadly. The twins’ father denies that abortion, cheap and common in China thanks to the one-child policy, ever came into play.
In any case, the babies are alive and growing stronger.
On Tuesday, Liao said the twins were now able to breath partly on their own without oxygen — a huge step forward. It’s unclear what their long-term prognosis might be. Even if they are able to survive their physical challenges, Chinese society is known for tossing aside children and adults with far more mundane physical problems.
As if to underscore that point, another quiet man and his wife watch the media circus around the twins’ family, pulling aside reporters to ask for help. Nearly three weeks ago, their neighbor found a 1-month-old abandoned baby girl in the stairwell of their apartment building. The couple decided they wanted to adopt the girl, and began the adoption process with a medical check-up (police confirm their story). They learned the baby, who shares a room with the conjoined twins, will die without heart surgery.
The hospital has not taken over her costs, even though the prognosis for patients with her condition is good after surgery. She is, after all, just one of many thousands of baby girls abandoned in China. The hospital keeps her in intensive care, but has told her prospective parents they need to pay roughly $10,000 before doctors will operate. The couple are simple people, but have taken to asking wherever they can.
“I feel like a beggar. I’ve worked hard all my life and never needed to ask for things, but we want this baby to live and we feel she’s our daughter. So I need to beg,” said prospective father Long Jianzhong.
Liao, meanwhile, fears the day that someone stops helping his family. His family is poor and can’t afford to care for the twins, should that become necessary. He and the rest of the family are entranced by a video of the remarkably normal Hensel twins, American women, now 21, who share a similar condition to their own twins.
An elderly aunt is quick to question comparisons.
“Does the government take care of them?” she wants to know. “Americans are rich, and they’re open-minded. You can’t imagine what this would be like in our village.”