February 1, 2008

Young Iraqi girl’s odyssey leads to Children’s Hospital

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Thomas Doyle, M.D., examines 2-year-old Amenah, who came to Vanderbilt from Iraq. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Young Iraqi girl’s odyssey leads to Children’s Hospital

Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S., Samir Sumaidaie, left, and Kevin Churchwell, M.D., check on Amenah. (photo by Neil Brake)

Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S., Samir Sumaidaie, left, and Kevin Churchwell, M.D., check on Amenah. (photo by Neil Brake)

A team of pediatric heart specialists at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt is continuing to assess a 2-year-old Iraqi girl who was flown to the United States in the hopes of saving her life.

The child, whose name is Amenah, arrived here Jan. 23 after a difficult journey from her home in Haditha, Iraq.

“The trip was tough for her,” said Karla Christian, M.D., a pediatric heart surgeon at Children's Hospital who first saw her in the pediatric heart clinic on Jan. 24.

“She was very dusky in appearance and had very low oxygen saturation levels. We felt it was necessary to admit her to the critical care unit for a couple of days where she received oxygen, a blood transfusion and treatment for infection.”

Christian and Thomas Doyle, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist, looked at chest X-rays and an echo-cardiogram and found that Amenah has a very complex congenital heart defect. The situation was more serious than anyone had anticipated. Amenah's heart is backward in her chest and the pumping chambers of her heart are reversed.

The young girl has 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.

“Untreated, this will be a fatal condition,” Doyle said.

Amenah, whose last name is not being released at the request of her family, had more advanced testing this week and surgery is now scheduled for Feb. 13. The delay is to let her fully recover from ear, bladder and respiratory infections.

“But she is stable and continues to improve, and the testing this week will help us develop the best plan of action for surgery,” Doyle said.

Meanwhile, Amenah is being kept well entertained. She and her mother were visited by the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., Samir Sumaidaie, on Sunday, Jan. 27. The ambassador is also from Haditha.

Kevin Churchwell, M.D., the C.E.O. of Children's Hospital, informed the Ambassador about her condition. Sumaidaie expressed his gratitude to Churchwell and the hospital staff for agreeing to care for the girl without charge. He said that efforts like this are important, especially in times of war.

“War is a cruel thing. Many families get destroyed or disrupted, but there are instances where lives are saved — many instances,” Sumaidaie said. “I would like to express my appreciation to the American military that never miss a chance where it is possible they have saved lives.”

Amenah came to Children's hospital through the efforts of U.S. troops in Iraq. Marines with Company Lima, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5, first met Amenah on a routine meet-and-greet patrol.

They reported her situation to their company commander, Maj. Kevin Jarrard, who visited the family and realized Amenah's condition was poor. He asked help of the battalion medical officer, Capt. John Nadeau, who examined the child.

Nadeau is a Vanderbilt hypertension specialist and battlefield surgeon serving his second tour of duty. He suspected she had a congenital heart defect that couldn't be treated by current facilities in Iraq. Nadeau contacted Christian and set the wheels in motion.

Jarrard spearheaded the logistical operations to bring Amenah to Nashville. Battalion Communications Officer Maj. Jake Falcone facilitated clearance for Amenah and her mother to enter the United States through the State Department and Department of Homeland Security. The Iraqi government supported the Marines' effort.

The mission was backed by financial contributions from friends and family of battalion members, a U.S. civilian medical extraction team and extensive cooperation from Blackwater Worldwide. World Relief and Grace Chapel Church in Franklin are providing for Amenah and her mother's needs away from the hospital.