05 June 2008

'String of Miracles' Benefits Iraqi Children

Playing outside her Baghdad home in January 2007, 6-year-old Shams couldn't have imagined that destiny was about to drastically change her life, along with the lives of many other Iraqi children.

Mortars don't discriminate between women or men, rich or poor, adults or children. One found Shams. It was a miracle Shams' father managed to flag down a passing U.S. military Humvee; it became the first in a string of miracles that love and generosity continue to facilitate.

Shams' emergency medical needs brought her to the combat support hospital in the International Zone here, where two surgeons worked to save the child's life -- one reattaching her arm, the other removing her leg. Need for further treatment brought her to the Baghdad-based National Iraqi Assistance Center, the U.S. military's humanitarian center, which for years linked detainees with relatives, settled compensation claims, and coordinated medical care for Iraqis.

When retired Marine Dan McFerrin was contacted for assistance, he and his employer, U.S. military contractor ECC, didn't think twice about pitching in. Thousands of miles, hundreds of phone calls, and dozens of loving, caring individuals later, Shams and her mother arrived at Shriners Hospital in Sacramento, Calif. There, Shams began 16 months of intensive rehabilitation, while across the United States and the Middle East, the next act had already begun to unfold.

McFerrin's wife, Brenda, had waited in Chicago to help mother and daughter through immigration and air terminals. She also was standing by to prevent potential red tape from ensnaring her patient and a medical transfer that had thus far been miraculously successful. But Brenda became the one ensnared, leading to her becoming the driving force behind creation of Children in Need International, a foundation offering acute medical care to children from destabilized nations that lack resources or funding for such treatment.

According to World Health Organization estimates, only about half of Iraq's former 34,000 physicians continue to practice in the country. An estimated 40 percent fled, 2,000 were killed, and others simply gave up when risk outweighed the good they could possibly accomplish without medicines, supplies or functioning equipment.

Not long after working together on Shams' case, Brenda enlisted Army reservist and National Iraqi Assistance Center veteran Staff Sgt. Marikay Satryano to join the Children in Need International team. Swapping military for civilian status, Marikay continues working with NIAC to screen medical cases for the group.

"Before patients come to us, they first see an Iraqi doctor," Satryano explained. "This raises confidence in local doctors, sending a message to the Iraqi people that they have competent professionals still active."

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Cedrick Jessup is NIAC's deputy director. "It's a very rewarding job where I get to meet a lot of Iraqi children," he said.

As of last month, NIAC -- currently under the supervision of 360th Civil Affairs Brigade -- has helped 216 children. "We get to see the job through from start to finish," Jessup said.

While treating patients as fairly as possible, the dynamics of triage often can seem unkind. Screening sometimes indicates conditions can be treated in country or are not serious enough to warrant immediate intervention. It can be heartbreaking telling other parents that their child's chance of survival, even with lengthy treatment in the most modern facilities, is extremely low and that the child cannot be recommended for assistance.

Jessup reports that 554 cases are now on NIAC's list of children likely to benefit from outside medical treatment. Though CINI's charter lists NIAC as its primary referral agency, the foundation also accepts referrals from other organizations and individuals. The number of children needing assistance far exceeds the newly formed organization's resources.

"Faced with hundreds of patients and limited financial resources, you must determine which cases are operable, and then concentrate on the ones you can help," Satryano acknowledged. "You do what you can, where you are, with what you have and with whomever is willing to help."

CINI's 2008 goal is to arrange treatment for 100 children. Half of these, as in Shams' case, will receive individual attention on an emergency-need basis. The other half will receive surgical or treatment interventions in specialized groups, including cardiac, ophthalmic, prosthetic, and plastic surgery for burns.

Already this year, CINI partnered with the Gift of Life volunteer cardiac team of U.S. and Jordanian physicians for the second annual Heart Mission. A dozen Iraqi and Jordanian children had their hearts surgically repaired at Al Khalidi Hospital in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Twelve children are now being identified to receive vision-restorative surgery this fall at Amman's Eye Specialty Hospital, which participates enthusiastically with CINI's efforts.

These medical exchanges not only benefit children, but also facilitate valuable technology and skills transfer while promoting international understanding and friendship. Treating children in Middle East regional hospitals, where language and culture are familiar, reduces stress for children and parents alike. CINI sends children abroad for medical care only when specific treatment is unavailable closer to home. Shriners Hospital, for example, specializes in treating badly burned children and those needing prostheses.

"The CINI Effect," as it's been called, seems to hinge on the ability Satryano and McFerrin have to pull together myriad resources on the spur of the moment to make miracles happen. From that first miracle with Shams to their most recent effort in May to get 5-month-old Fadi urgently needed heart surgery, the CINI duo does not allow the "impossible" to enter into the assistance equation.

"The CINI group is absolutely amazing to work with," Jessup said. "Success comes when so many people pull together to help one child."

By Elaine Eliah
Special to American Forces Press Service

Elaine Eliah works for the Inma Agribusiness Program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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