Heart of War, Heart of Healing
This article orginally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
By Jim Belshaw
This is a story about a 5-year-old Iraqi girl. It is about good hearts and a bad one and fear.
The good hearts begin with a couple of U.S. infantrymen in Iraq, one of them from New Mexico. Before the story ends, those good hearts will stretch from infantrymen to embassies to congressional offices to surgeons and nurses and others in Albuquerque.
The bad heart, once beating erratically in the chest of the little girl, has been repaired.
The fear remains.
Because of it, her name won't appear here. Neither will the city which she came from in Iraq. There is worry that a connection to Americans might endanger others.
Her story begins during a night raid by members of an Army infantry unit in late May. Two soldiers came upon her and quickly saw her color was all wrong. Her lips were blue; the tips of her hands and feet were swollen and purplish-blue -- all signs of a congenital heart defect that would kill her if not corrected.
A Stars and Stripes reporter, Sandra Jontz, was embedded with the infantry unit that night. She wrote about the little girl. An Internet blogger, Michael Yon, a former Special Forces member who now travels with U.S. infantry units to record their missions for his online magazine, wrote about her.
One of the soldiers who discovered her, Spc. Matthew English, e-mailed his mother, Pam, a pediatric nurse at Presbyterian Hospital. He asked if there was something she could do.
She spoke with a doctor. He contacted Debbie O'Rourke, founder of Healing the Children/Southwest in Albuquerque.
"He said we needed to bring this little girl to Albuquerque on behalf of those troops who found her," O'Rourke said. "No matter what you think about the war, all of us support the troops and this was a way of doing it."
O'Rourke spent the summer pulling together the paperwork that would bring a little girl to a strange, alien world where people she once feared would save her life. "I have brought in children from many countries (nearly 200 of them), but Iraq was a challenge," O'Rourke said. "The troops there rallied around this little girl, and we rallied around the troops."
Michael Yon reported on his blog: "Quietly ... soldiers mustered the money and time from their own busy lives to help this timid little Iraqi girl."
Numerous e-mails went back and forth from Iraq to O'Rourke, but the "challenge of Iraq" made it difficult to arrange the paperwork in the right order.
O'Rourke called Rep. Heather Wilson's office for help.
"That was it," O'Rourke said. "They greased the wheels and we got it done." The 5-year-old arrived in Albuquerque in early October and underwent surgery on Oct. 10. The hospital and its personnel donated the time, expertise and everything else needed to do the surgery.
Born with two holes between the upper and lower chambers of her heart and a ventricle that did not circulate blood properly, the little girl is now recuperating at Presbyterian, where the matter has taken on a much different color.
"One of the nurses said she no longer looks like a blueberry," O'Rourke said. "She's nice and pink now. Twenty-four hours after surgery, she was sitting up and mommy was feeding her popsicles."
In an e-mail on Tuesday, O'Rourke said a Presbyterian pediatric cardiologist told her they hoped to discharge the girl within a week.
In another e-mail from a now frequent correspondent, an Army battalion surgeon reported other news. The Army doctor wrote to her: "I know we're not finished with (the first girl), but I think I found two more."
Children's Medical Center at Presbyterian has the only pediatric heart surgeon in New Mexico, and is the only hospital in New Mexico performing congenital open heart procedures.
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