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Gainesville Marine helps Iraqi girl get surgery

Lifesaving procedure wouldn’t have been possible in Iraq

POSTED: February 10, 2008 5:05 a.m.

Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie, left, and Dr. Kevin Churchwell, chief executive officer of the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, visit with sleeping 2-year-old Amenah, a heart patient from Haditha, Iraq.

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A 2-year-old Iraqi girl who has been helped by a Marine major from Gainesville is expected to undergo major heart surgery in two weeks.

A team of pediatric heart specialists at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt continues to assess the condition of the little girl named Amenah (pronounced Ah-min–Uh).

The girl was flown to Nashville from Iraq one week ago in hopes of receiving lifesaving surgery.

Physicians Thomas Doyle and Karla Christian saw Amenah and have determined that her heart problem is more complex than originally expected.

The young girl has a large hole in her heart and a severe obstruction between her heart and lungs, giving her the "blue baby" look around her lips and extremities. Amenah’s heart is basically backward in her chest, and her large arteries are oriented abnormally.

"Untreated, this will be a fatal condition in her young childhood," said Doyle, a pediatric cardiologist.

Maj. Kevin Jarrard of Gainesville, company commander for Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines, learned of Amenah during his interactions with residents in Haditha, Iraq, where his unit is serving. The girl’s last name is not being released at the request of her family.

Jarrard asked Capt. John Nadeau, a Vanderbilt hypertension specialist and battlefield surgeon, to examine the child. He suspected she had a congenital heart defect that couldn’t be treated by current facilities in Iraq. Nadeau contacted the Nashville hospital and physicians, who offered to treat Amenah without charge.

Once at Vanderbilt, Amenah was found to have bladder, ear and respiratory infections.

"The doctors wanted to make sure she had plenty of time of health before they do the surgery," said Carole Bartoo, a spokeswoman for the hospital. "That trip was very hard on her."

She was first admitted to a critical care unit, but has since been moved to a private room. On Sunday, Samir Sumaidaie, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., paid a visit to the girl in the hospital.

"We want to give her the same care any child here in the United States would get, but we also have to keep in mind the access to medical care she will have when she returns home," Christian said. "She will require a complex open heart surgery with significant risk."

She arrived in Nashville safely through heroic efforts of the U.S. military, as well as efforts of people who made donations to pay her travel expenses.

Battalion Communications Officer Maj. Jake Falcone facilitated clearance for Amenah and her mother to enter the U.S. through the State Department and Department of Homeland Security. The battalion raised $30,000 to fly them to the U.S. via Jordan with the assistance of a U.S. medical team and extensive cooperation from Blackwater Worldwide.

Officials with the Iraqi government backed the Marines’ effort with their unconditional support.

Amenah left Iraq last week aboard a Marine Corps CH-53 helicopter to the Jordanian border, just ahead of a heavy snowstorm. The girl and her mother were whisked off to Amman, where they boarded a flight to Chicago and then a connecting flight to Nashville.

"Watching battle-hardened Marines scoop up a 2-year-old Iraqi girl, whose uncles are imprisoned for terrorist activities, and carry her aboard helicopters and humvees makes me believe peace is possible," Jarrard wrote in an e-mail sent Sunday.

Today, she is expected to have additional tests on her heart now that the infection has subsided. She and her mother are expected to leave the hospital and stay with a host family in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tenn., before returning for the surgery.

While the cost of her medical care in Nashville is being donated by the hospital, there is still a need for funds for the return flight to Iraq. Contributions can be made at any location of BB&T bank.

Editor’s note: In previous stories in The Times, the little girl was referred to as Amina. Officials with Vanderbilt said that the phonetic spelling is Amenah, which was used on her passport.


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