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Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, shot by Taliban, able to stand

Doctors at a British hospital say Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai, targeted because she stood up for education for girls, is improving but fighting an infection.

October 20, 2012|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai is being treated at a hospital in Birmingham, England, that specializes in combat wounds. She was targeted by the Taliban in Pakistan for standing up for education rights for girls.
Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai is being treated at a hospital in Birmingham,… (University Hospitals Birmingham…)

LONDON — Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenage education-rights campaigner who was shot in the head by the Taliban, has been able to stand for the first time since the attack and is communicating by writing, a British hospital official said Friday.

But the 14-year-old whose plight has aroused international concern is still fighting an infection caused by the bullet that entered her head, burrowed past her jaw and lodged above her shoulder blade, said David Rosser, medical director at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, in central England. Malala was flown to the hospital from Pakistan this week for specialized treatment.

Rosser said Malala has continued to show signs of improvement since waking from a long anesthesia.

"One of the first things she asked the nurses was what country she was in," he told reporters. "She's closer to the edge of the woods, but she's not out of the woods."

The teenager was shot Oct. 9 aboard a school bus in Pakistan's Swat Valley, a scenic region that has come under the sway of Taliban militants and their fanatical Islamist ideology.

Malala had risen to prominence by passionately defending the right to education for girls, in defiance of Taliban teaching; she wrote a blog about her thoughts and experiences for the BBC's Urdu Service.

Three brothers have been arrested in connection with the shooting, though Pakistani authorities said none was believed to have been the gunman. Officials in Pakistan were quoted this week as saying that the suspected attacker had been detained in 2009 during a military offensive in the Swat Valley but later released.

The Taliban has vowed to finish Malala off, prompting tight security at the Birmingham hospital.

Far from quashing Malala's cause, the attack sparked huge rallies across Pakistan and the rest of the world on her behalf. Rosser said his young patient was "keen to thank people" for their outpouring of support and wanted the world to be kept apprised of her condition.

The bullet that struck her did not penetrate her skull, Rosser said. Instead, it entered her head near her left eyebrow, then traveled under the surface of the skin down the side of her head and neck. Shock waves from the bullet shattered a bone in her skull, and fragments were driven into her brain.

Two other girls in the bus were wounded in the attack, one of them critically. They remain in Pakistan.

Rosser said that scans had shown some damage to Malala's brain. But encouragingly, "at this stage we're not seeing any deficit in terms of function," he said. "She seems to be able to understand; she has some memory.... She's able to stand. She's got motor control, so she's able to write."

Malala appears to have some recall of the attack, but those around her are refraining from bringing up the topic, Rosser said.

"From a lot of the work we've done with our military casualties, we know that reminding people of traumatic events at this stage increases the potential for psychological problems later," he said.

A tube in her trachea makes it impossible for her to speak for now, but the hospital is trying to arrange for her to listen to her father on the phone. Her family remains in Pakistan; efforts are underway to bring them to Britain to be at her bedside.

Rosser said the teen would require a few weeks of rest before surgeons try to reconstruct the damaged part of her skull and possibly her jaw.

"Its going to be a process of recuperation and recovery," he said. "If things go well, there shouldn't be dramatic changes to her condition; it should be a gradual recovery of strength.

"It would be over-optimistic to say that there are not going to be further problems," Rosser said. "But it is possible she'll make a full recovery."

henry.chu@latimes.com

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