Toddler Returns To Iraq After Life-Saving Surgery

March 10th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Toddler Returns To Iraq After Life-Saving Surgery

New York Times
March 10, 2008
Pg. 8
By Erica Goode
HADITHA, Iraq — She is an amazingly lucky girl in a country where bad luck is everywhere. But 2-year-old Amenah al-Bayati is not aware of her good fortune.
She is still ignorant of how ruthlessly death stalks her country. She was not yet born when, in 2005, American marines killed 24 civilians, including five children, after their convoy hit a roadside bomb in this farming town on the Euphrates. She was too young to understand the politics that briefly landed her father in jail, suspected of ties to the insurgency.
So she does not know how exceptional her luck was last fall when a Marine company decided to do everything it could to save her life, sending her to the United States in January for surgery to repair a congenital heart defect that was cutting off her oxygen supply.
Last Friday, Amenah returned home to Iraq. She and her mother, who had accompanied her to the United States, met her father in Baghdad, flew with the marines to Al Asad Air Base in Anbar Province, and then on to Haditha on an MV-22 Osprey aircraft.
In pink boots and orange tights, the toddler allowed her older brother and sisters to fuss over her, clung to her mother’s legs and peered shyly at the marines, who gathered with family members to celebrate her return over dinner in the brightly lighted courtyard of the heavily guarded house.
“I am so happy, so very happy,” said Amenah’s father, Alaa Thabit Fatah.
“Americans are human beings and they do mistakes,” but they also do good things, he said.
The homecoming was a public relations coup for the Marine Corps, which has been eager to show that its efforts to win over Iraqis in Anbar Province were succeeding. The firefights and bombings that were once frequent in Haditha have quieted, the Marines say, and relations with the town’s residents have improved, allowing them to build friendships and help children like Amenah.
But the celebration dinner was also the culmination of an extraordinary effort to get Amenah medical care unavailable in Iraq, a project that required months of logistical planning, including special visas, money for airfare, military planes, security, an interpreter and medical escorts.
“It was a crisis,” said Maj. Kevin Jarrard, the company commander, who led the effort. “She would have died pretty quickly if we had not been able to move her.”
It was chance that brought Amenah to Major Jarrard’s attention. Last fall, marines from the Third Battalion, 23rd Marines, were on routine patrol when they visited Amenah’s family and noticed that her hands and feet turned blue when she moved around the house.
When Major Jarrard was told of the child’s illness, he asked the battalion surgeon, Capt. John Nadeau, to see her. Captain Nadeau, a Navy reservist, is a cardiologist and professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
“It was pretty obvious that something was wrong,” Major Jarrard recalled.
Captain Nadeau recognized the signs of a congenital heart problem and suspected that Amenah had a disorder in which a hole in the heart obstructs blood flow to the lungs. Doctors say the disorder can be corrected surgically with low risk. But without sophisticated tests, he could not be sure of the diagnosis.
Still, he knew the child needed treatment. He e-mailed a colleague, Dr. Karla Christian, an associate professor of cardiology at Vanderbilt, who agreed to perform the surgery free. She persuaded Vanderbilt University Medical Center to pick up the other costs.
That left the problem of getting Amenah to the United States. Major Jarrard discovered that Amenah’s father had once been detained for several months.
“My first thought was the little girl can’t help who her daddy was,” he said, adding that the two men have since grown close.
“Perhaps he was involved in the insurgency, perhaps he wasn’t,” Major Jarrard said. “It’s difficult to tell from the reports we have. But as far as I’m concerned, he’s my friend.”
With the help of Homeland Security and the State Department, Major Jarrard got special humanitarian visas for Amenah and her mother, Mata Muhammad Bandar. But family members objected to a woman traveling alone to the United States with her child. Finally, a tribal leader in Haditha, Sheik Said Hadi Said, persuaded the family to let them go.
Major Jarrard and his company raised $28,000 for transportation costs, much of it from his hometown, Gainesville, Ga. Amenah and her mother were driven to Iraq’s border with Jordan, accompanied by a translator and paramedics.
Once Amenah arrived at the medical school in Nashville, Dr. Christian discovered that the girl had a far more complicated disorder than suspected: the heart’s chambers were misconnected and one chamber was too small to function fully. “She had about four different things wrong with her heart, all of them very uncommon,” Dr. Christian said.
In a three-hour operation on Feb. 11, she and her team divided the large vein that carries blood from the upper body, the superior vena cava, and sewed it to the pulmonary artery, taking nonoxygenated blood and sending it straight to the lungs, bypassing the heart.
Amenah recovered quickly, leaving the hospital four days later. She will be able to live a virtually normal life, Dr. Christian said.
“She could play soccer, she could get an education,” she said. “She probably won’t be a competitive athlete but she could live a long, full life.”
As Amenah’s family mingled Friday evening with the marines, Captain Nadeau said Amenah was not the only young child in Haditha with a serious illness. Two more children with congenital heart defects have already come to his attention, he said, adding that sending every critically ill child to the United States was obviously not the answer. Iraq, he said, has excellent doctors, and desperately needs the tools and medications to care for its own.
Still, Captain Nadeau said: “When I look at the money that is wasted here, you know, it’s only money. And look at this little girl.”

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