MANILA, Philippines--Carl and Clarence Aguirre are about to celebrate their sixth birthday in April.
It sounds like a happy, regular event, but not for these twins who were born in 2002 with their heads conjoined.
That they are able to live separate lives today is due largely to the Medical Travel Grant, a project of Philippine Airlines Foundation.
Through the grant, the twins and their mother, Arlene, were flown for free from their hometown in Silay City in the central Philippines province of Negros Occidental to Manila in 2003 for tests. After this, they were sent to the Children?s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City.
Doctors there performed a series of delicate operations starting November 2003 that ended in the separation of the twins in May 2004.
Filipino children afflicted with congenital heart disease also found their lifeline in Philippine Airlines (PAL), which tied up with the Rotary Gift of Life to fly the sick children to hospitals in Australia and the United States.
Maria Carmen Sarmiento, PAL Foundation executive director, said the travel grant was the best way for PAL to help others with the use of its ?airlifting capacity.?
PAL is in a position to transport sick patients needing special care to hospitals with the expertise because it flies to practically all major destinations in the country and to major cities abroad.
Sarmiento said PAL Foundation had even gone beyond just bringing the indigent patients to the hospitals. It also seeks sponsorships for the patients? extended medical care. Some have even gifted the children with scholarships when they got out of the hospitals.
?The grants are truly life-changing. We go beyond the numbers because we see the continuous effect of what we have been able to do,? Sarmiento told the Inquirer.
She said that all charity patients were eligible to apply for a medical travel grant that would enable them to get medical treatment at specialty centers where PAL flies. However, she said, they have to be truly indigent and it should be proven that local hospitals in their areas were not capable to provide specialized care, as in the cases of the Aguirre twins and Kenneth Villa.
?We look at charity patients with serious illnesses who badly need specialty treatment,? she explained. ?For example, a patient from Zamboanga can apply for a medical travel grant to Manila where he can have a bone marrow transplant because the hospitals in Zamboanga cannot do the operation.?
PAL Foundation gives an average of six travel grants a month, which covers the patient and one escort, Sarmiento said.
Not too many apply for the travel grant because they can not afford the extra expenses, such as food and accommodation. PAL Foundation tries to invite sponsors to pick up the tab, but the funds are still very limited.
?We are trying to get more Filipino-American families involved by becoming foster parents of the sick children brought to the United States for treatment,? Sarmiento said. ?We have a few but we are trying to get more.?
Drive against human trafficking
For this year, PAL Foundation is embarking on a new campaign. This time, it is setting its sights on helping stop human trafficking, particularly through the airlines.
Sarmiento said PAL Foundation had tied up with the Visayan Forum, a nongovernmental organization specializing in the fight against human trafficking, to come up with information materials on the laws against human trafficking in the Philippines.
She added that PAL personnel, especially the cabin attendants, would undergo training on spotting and helping likely victims of human trafficking on board the airline.
?Estimates show that there are about half a million victims of human trafficking within Philippine borders and about 100,000 who go out through the airports. That is still a lot and we will do what we can to help these people,? Sarmiento said.