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Long road for burn victim

Youssif, 6, was doused with gas and set on fire at his Baghdad home in January. Now he's being treated at an L.A. burn center.

September 17, 2007|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

Youssif was playing outside his Baghdad home in January when unidentified assailants doused him in gasoline and set the 5-year-old boy ablaze. Even by modern-day Iraqi standards, the attack was brutal.

Now Youssif and his family -- whose last name is being kept private for security reasons -- are adjusting to life in the San Fernando Valley, as he awaits months of treatment for severe facial burns. A CNN story on Youssif's plight a month ago touched off a massive international outpouring of sympathy and support.

The Sherman Oaks-based Children's Burn Foundation brought Youssif and his family to Southern California for what probably will be several months of treatment -- including multiple surgeries and extensive therapy for the traumatized child, who is now 6.

The effects of the attack are evident from across the room on Youssif's face. Thick, pink, shiny scar tissue stretches from ear to ear, partially obscuring his nose and mouth.

"We're never going to completely erase those scars. He's always going to be disfigured," said Dr. Peter Grossman, who will perform the surgeries. "The goal is to get him as close as possible to the way he looked before."

Youssif's journey to the U.S. began in August when his father managed to contact members of CNN's Baghdad bureau. Previously, his parents had spent months hopelessly seeking help for the boy to receive treatment outside Iraq.

"We went to the Ministry of Health, to the Red Cross, even to the cabinet," said Youssif's mother, Zainab.

CNN's story on Youssif's plight aired Aug. 22, and the response was instant. Barbara Friedman, executive director of the Children's Burn Foundation, was immediately flooded with appeals to help the child.

Grossman, whose father, Richard, helped start the foundation and the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital, said he was amazed at how quickly the funding and visas came together to bring Youssif and his family here.

"Normally it takes weeks and weeks and months and months," said Grossman, who has worked with young burn victims from other war-torn countries, such as Afghanistan.

Youssif has been living it up in his first days in the country. On Friday, he visited Universal Studios, on Saturday, the beach.

"We've never seen the ocean," said Youssif's father, who asked that his name not be published.

Saturday morning, in between games on his new PlayStation, Youssif looked over a picture taken Friday showing him at Universal surrounded by Spider-Man and other costumed heroes. Asked who his favorite was, he said softly, "The spider."

But the hard part begins in two weeks, when Grossman will perform the first of several operations. First the scar tissue around his nose and forehead will be removed and replaced with skin grafted from Youssif's stomach. At the same time, an inflatable banana-shaped bladder will be inserted into the skin underneath his chin.

The bladder will be gradually filled with saline over several months until Youssif looks, according to Grossman, like a "fully engorged male bullfrog trying to show off."

Sometime in November or December, the thick scar tissue covering his jaw will be sliced away and the boy's newly stretched skin will be pulled up to form a new covering.

Grossman said several more operations would be necessary to help Youssif open his mouth wider and cover scars from the previous surgeries.

Youssif's parents have been fully briefed on the long, unpleasant road ahead of their son.

"He knows he's going to have an operation, but he thinks it's going to be easy," his father said.

The physical reconstruction work will be coupled with psychological and emotional therapy for Youssif and his whole family.

Youssif's parents say he has become moody and temperamental since his burning, and he often bullies his baby sister,Aya.

"The goal is to get him to smile again. Not just the physical ability, but wanting to smile," Grossman said.

The boy's mother blames herself for letting him play outside the day he was attacked, Friedman said.

"Guilt is a universal theme with families with burned children. It has a long-lasting impact," Friedman said.

For Grossman, before the surgeries can begin, his initial challenge is to overcome Youssif's "very significant trust issues."

The child is terrified of white medical coats and tends to bury himself in his father's arms when strangers, and especially doctors, approach.

"He's scared of doctors, and he's right to be scared," said Youssif's father, who recalled several agonizing sessions in Baghdad with Iraqi doctors scrubbing his son's wounds clean.

Youssif's story has struck an international emotional chord, and Friedman says her three-member staff has been swamped by offers of support and donations -- "everything from $5 to $45,000. . . . We're not asking for toys because we would just be totally inundated."

The donations, she said, should more than cover the cost of Youssif's surgeries and lodging, and the boy's family has requested that any extra donations be put toward treating other young burn victims.--

ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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