When people ask Dawn and Danielle Kaplan of Van Nuys if they are twins, the 14-year-old sisters proudly reply, "No, we're quintuplets."
"And then they look at us and say, 'Oh, really? How many is that?' " Dawn said.
That was five, as Dawn and Danielle are deeply aware. They are the survivors of the first quintuplets born in California and the third set born in the United States.
This month they returned to Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys to work as candy stripers, or volunteer aides. It is the same hospital where their mother, Pearl Kaplan, now 39, gave birth to the quintuplets 10 weeks prematurely on March 16, 1971, drawing worldwide attention.
For about a year before she became pregnant, Pearl Kaplan had been taking a fertility drug, the same drug taken by Patti Frustaci, who gave birth to septuplets on May 21 of this year at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange. Three of the Frustaci children survive.
Dawn and Danielle's simple understanding of life and death, stemming from a lifelong knowledge of the unusual circumstances of their birth, has made the sisters proud to call themselves quintuplets, although their siblings did not live long enough for the girls to remember them, their mother said.
"Well, my mother had a problem," Danielle explained, "and she couldn't have any children. So she had to take the fertility drugs."
"Then she found out she was going to have five babies," Dawn said. "I'm the oldest. I was born first. . . . The fifth was a boy, and he was stillborn. Our two other sisters died two days later.
"I know that if my mom wouldn't have taken the drugs, she couldn't have children, and I wouldn't be here," Dawn said.
Danielle and Dawn can show-and-tell about their first weeks of life with a thick yellow scrapbook filled with photographs and newspaper clippings from as far away as Jerusalem.
"See, by this picture, my leg was about this big," Danielle said, making a circle with her thumb and forefinger. "We were kind of ugly babies."
Danielle weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces at birth. Dawn weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces.
Turning the page and looking at a photo of a tiny baby with a tube taped to its forehead, Danielle pushed aside her bangs and said: "See, I still have the scar. I had to have an intravenous. But it kept popping out of my foot so they had to put it on my head."
Dawn said she was Baby A and Danielle was Baby D.
"We had names, but I guess it was easier for the nurses to call us letters," Dawn said.
"When we were 13, for our birthday we got to come to the hospital and see an X-ray of us inside our mom right before we were born," Dawn said. "We were all kind of scrunched up in there. One of us was sitting up."
Pearl Kaplan said her daughters knew from childhood that they were quintuplets.
"As soon as they could talk, I told them that they had another brother and two sisters who were born with them." Kaplan said. "I told them why the others had died. And now they understand and there aren't any questions in their minds.
"Because I told them about all the problems, as well as how happy I was to bring them home, I don't think they take much for granted in their lives," Kaplan said.
"They know that with all the good comes some bad, and vice versa."
Sought Hospital Work
The girls said that, since they were very young, they wanted to work at the hospital, but the minimum age for volunteers is 14. Candy stripers, nicknamed for the striped pattern of their work dresses, run errands, such as delivering flowers and meal trays, and help with clerical work.
"I don't know, maybe it's because we always knew this was the place where we were born and we are always looking at the pictures of us in the incubators," Dawn said. "As soon as we turned 14, we signed up."
"Other than being quintuplets," Danielle said. "We're pretty normal."