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Gainesville Marine's open heart gives Iraqi girl chance at a future
Maha Mohammed Al Sumaidaie kisses her 2-year-old daughter in the first hour after her open heart surgery at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt. - photo by Neil Brake


In an exclusive interview with The Times, Iraq's ambassador to the U.S., Samir Sumaidaie, speaks with Harris Blackwood about the success of the surgery and what it means to U.S.-Iraqi relations.

Pink fingers, toes and lips.

Those were the things 2-year-old Amenah Al-Bayati’s mother noticed when she saw her daughter for the first time after open heart surgery to repair a serious birth defect.

A surgical team at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt performed the procedure on the toddler from Iraq on Monday. The three-hour surgery involved redirecting blood from Amenah’s heart to her lungs in order to increase the levels of oxygen in her bloodstream.

"The surgery went well," said Karla Christian, associate professor of cardiac surgery. "We redirected the veins of her heart in a procedure called a bi-directional Glenn Shunt. Her heart already looks much happier."

Christian said the girl’s heart is pumping very well, and the oxygenation percentages to her fingers and toes went from 60 to 70 percent before surgery to more than 90 percent after.

When Christian emerged from the operating room, the child’s mother, Maha Mohammed Al-Sumaidaie, gave her a big hug and thanked her many times.

"I cannot describe how I am feeling," said Amenah’s mother. "I didn’t even imagine this could happen. Thank goodness for everything, and I thank God for all those who have helped."

The news was well received at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington.

"Pure delight," said Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie, who spoke with The Times by phone. "I’m absolutely delighted. This is most wonderful news."

Sumaidaie, who visited the little girl in the hospital when she arrived from Iraq, said the surgery will change her life.

"When I went to Nashville, I saw her lying there in bed, and her face was blue because she was not getting enough oxygen," said the ambassador. "My heart went out to her. Now, I know she’s safe and will have a happy and, hopefully, productive life."

Sumaidaie paid tribute to Maj. Kevin Jarrard, the Gainesville Marine who discovered the child’s plight during his interactions with local residents in Haditha, the city in Iraq where his unit is serving.

"I would like to take the opportunity to say thank you on behalf of the girl, her family and, generally, the Iraqi people, for saving the life of an innocent girl, who would have died if he (Jarrard) had not intervened," Sumaidaie said. "This will be talked about for a long time in the community."

He said he would make every effort to see that the story of the girl’s life-saving mission is told in his country.

Amenah and her mother arrived at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. Monday with Steve Berger, a Franklin, Tenn., pastor whose family is hosting the Iraqis while they are in Middle Tennessee. The surgery began at 7 a.m. central time, and by 11 a.m. the surgical team was able to report to Amenah’s mother that surgery was complete and had gone well.

The young girl had a large hole in her heart and a severe obstruction between her heart and lungs, giving her the classic "blue baby" look around her lips and extremities.

Amenah’s heart was basically backward in her chest, and her large arteries are oriented abnormally.

"Untreated, this will be a fatal condition in her young childhood," said Thomas Doyle, a pediatric cardiologist, prior to the surgery.

After surgery, Amenah was taken to the Pediatric Critical Care Unit, where she will recover for the next several days. She remained on a ventilator for several hours Monday, requiring intensive care support for the first 24 to 48 hours after surgery. The first 24 hours after surgery are critical. However, doctors are cautiously optimistic Amenah will enjoy a full recovery.

Getting the child and her mother to the U.S. was no easy feat.

Jarrard asked Capt. John Nadeau, a Vanderbilt hypertension specialist and battlefield surgeon, to examine the child. He suspected she had a congenital heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot, where the heart is plagued by holes and obstructions.

Realizing the ailment couldn’t be treated by facilities in Iraq. Nadeau contacted the hospital and physicians, who offered to treat Amenah without charge.

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.

Amenah left Iraq in January aboard a Marine Corps CH-53 helicopter to the Jordanian border, just ahead of a heavy snowstorm. The girl and her mother were then whisked off to Amman, Jordan’s capital, where they boarded a flight to Chicago and connected to Nashville.

Jarrard has been raising funds for the expensive air travel to bring her to Nashville, and for a return flight home when her recovery is complete.

Robin Smith of BB&T Bank, where the account for the girl is opened, said that some media accounts incorrectly reported that enough money has been raised. Smith said an additional $10,000 is needed to cover the travel costs.

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