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Sick Iraqi child wins determined friends

Marines arrange for her to have surgery in the U.S. to correct a serious heart defect.

January 31, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

HADITHA, IRAQ — At his home just off Sheik Said Road, Ala Thabit Fattah waits for word from America about whether doctors can save his 2-year-old daughter, Amenah.

Iraqi doctors had known since she was only a few weeks old that Amenah had an oxygen deficiency problem in her heart that probably would prove fatal before she reached school-age.

But her doctor told Fattah that the only surgeons he knew who could save Amenah had fled Iraq in the turmoil since the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Fattah and his wife were resigned that the youngest of their four children would not be with them long. The slightest exertion tired her, her lips and fingers turning bright blue.

"The doctor said even his own sister's child has the same problem and there is nothing that can be done," Fattah, 37, who works at the local water department, said Tuesday.

Then Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Regiment, a reservist unit attached to Camp Pendleton-based Regimental Combat Team 5, stopped by the Fattah home during a routine patrol.

The squad leader, Sgt. Bryan Velazques, thought that Amenah must have been eating blue candy. He was shocked when her parents said she always turned blue.

"I thought she was the cutest little girl I'd ever seen and that she deserved a chance to live," Velazques said.

The battalion surgeon, Navy Capt. John Nadeau, a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, diagnosed the problem as a not-uncommon heart defect.

"She would have been dead within a year," Nadeau said.

His dire diagnosis set off a chain of events that led the Marines to arrange a trip last week by Amenah and her mother to Nashville so the child can undergo surgery at Vanderbilt's Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital.

Pediatric specialists, who are donating their services, determined that Amenah's condition was considerably more serious than Nadeau had thought. Her heart is backward in her chest, constricting her breathing, doctors said. She also has a serious infection.

Surgery could be performed within days and recuperation could last several weeks, with Amenah's mother, Maha Muhamed Bandar, staying with a local family. The Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. visited the hospital last weekend.

The trip was fraught with bureaucratic, familial and geopolitical problems. Getting passports was complicated. U.S. consular officials initially were reluctant to approve the visit because the father's three brothers are in jail on what are called anti-coalition charges. And while the family was driving home from Baghdad after getting the passports, its car was peppered by gunfire from the Iraqi army in a checkpoint foul-up. No one was injured, but it was terrifying.

Once home, some relatives protested the idea of Amenah's mother traveling unaccompanied by a male relative.

It took a dressing-down from Sheik Abdul Hadi Said to get the relatives to back down.

"I told them they were ignorant people holding on to the past," the sheik said.

In the U.S., Kelly Jarrard, wife of the Lima Company commander, Maj. Kevin Jarrard, led a drive in their hometown of Gainesville, Ga., to raise $30,000 to defray travel expenses.

The Marines say the military's official role is limited and ad hoc. There is no policy covering attempts to save a child's life through such extraordinary measures, nor any plan to provide similar care to other children.

Amenah was lucky.

As she undergoes tests in preparation for surgery, her father waits and prays.

"It all depends now on the doctors," he said. "Inshallah" -- Arabic for "God willing."

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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