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Military doctors: Local girl who befriended deployed unit needs life saving surgery

28 Aug 2006 | Cpl. Antonio Rosas

After befriending Marines and sailors serving in this region of Iraq, a 12-year-old Iraqi girl who is in need of a kidney and liver transplant is now in a life-or-death struggle.

Hadael Hamade, a young Iraqi girl from Karabilah, Iraq, a city of about 30,000 near the Iraq-Syria border, desperately needs life-saving surgery in order to live, according to U.S. Navy physicians who have treated her on occasion in recent months.

The girl befriended Marines from 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment – the U.S. military unit assigned to provide security in this portion along the Euphrates River – months ago when the Marines were on patrol in the city.

“When we first saw Hadael several months ago, she was walking,” said Navy Lt. Mark D. Rasmussen, an anesthesiologist with the surgical suite here. “Now she can’t move much. The Marines needed to carry her from her house to the humvee, and from the humvee to the surgical suite here.”

Since then, U.S. military forces here have regularly checked-up on the girl, evaluating her condition.

Hadael’s father, Ahmed, a 46-year-old school teacher, sought the aid of Marines and sailors, stating that doctors in his country cannot help his daughter, according to Navy doctors here.

After losing four children to kidney disease, he’s not ready to let his 12-year-old daughter suffer the same fate as her brothers and sisters, he said.

“If I need to go to outside of Iraq to help my daughter, I will go,” said Ahmed through an interpreter. “I will do anything to help my daughter stay alive and I am thankful for anyone that wishes to help me in any way.”

But that’s not enough to save the girl. She needs immediate surgery, and regular medication, to sustain her. That procedure and follow-on care, though, could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – money Hamade’s family doesn’t have, and medical treatment Iraqi doctors are unable to provide, according to Ahmed.

Hadael recently received medication which doctors say will prolong her life a bit, medicine donated by several U.S. non-government agencies.

But the medicine is a temporary fix to a much larger problem. Without a kidney transplant and further treatment, Hadael will die, according to Navy Capt. H.D. Elshire, the officer-in-charge of the Marines’ medical facility at their camp at this border city – headquarters for the southern Calif.-based battalion.

The surgery is just the start, as Hadael will require life-long medical care if the kidney-liver transplant is successful. That, the Marines say, will require a life-time of medication, and plenty of funding to purchase that medicine.

“If she doesn’t get it soon, her chances of survival are pretty dismal,” said Elshire, 55, a Huntington Beach, Calif. native. “There is no help for her here in Iraq as the doctors in Baghdad don’t have the resources to help her.”

Hamade’s case has recently garnered attention in the U.S. after several non-profit organizations and a congressman from California learned of her situation. Her case was first brought to their attention upon the death of a Marine killed here, who just days before his death vowed to help the girl by bringing it to the attention of his chain-of-command.

Lance Cpl. Aaron W. Simons, a rifleman with the Marines serving in Karabilah, met the dying girl during a midnight security patrol through the city, according to the girl’s father.

Simons befriended the family and wanted to help Hadael’s father find help for his daughter, according to Simons’ best friend, Cpl. Ian Kutner, who also visited the family several times.

“I remember the young Marine (Simons) and how he was interested in getting help for my family,” said Ahmed. “I am very sorry for his death. Without him I would have never gotten help for my daughter.”

Several months ago, Hadael had become very ill in the middle of the night and her father ran out into the street for help. He knew the Marines were near-by, said Ahmed. A few days later she was taken hundreds of miles east to a medical center in Baghdad, but the doctors there could do nothing for her, he said.

“She was evaluated, and they (doctors) basically said, ‘The prognosis is too poor, you’re too sick,’ and they sent her home,” said Lt. Col. Larry White, director of a civil military operations center for the Al Qa’im region.

Due to a lack of medical resources in this region capable of handling cases of this nature, four of Hadael’s siblings have died from the very same hereditary kidney failure now claiming her life, said Ahmed.

The disease doctors suspect Hadael has is called “Oxalosis.” The disease begins in the liver, where it limits the liver’s metabolizing capabilities. That can begin a chain reaction of deterioration, affecting other organs - specifically the kidneys, causing permanent kidney failure.

The disease has caused Hadael to appear small for her age, ill-appearing and has zapped her energy – she is too weak to walk, U.S. doctors say.

The disease is prevalent in the Middle East and is the leading cause of renal (kidney) failure in Iraq, according to Elshire.

Nevertheless, concern for this region’s healthcare system have been expressed. The governor of Al Anbar Province, an area roughly the size of South Carolina, made a pledge to improve local medical resources in the area, including the construction of a new hospital, when he made a tour of Al Qa’im last month.

Ahmed has sought the aid of the Americans because professionals in Iraq have already given up on saving his daughter’s life, he said.

When Ahmed learned that his daughter had the same disease his other children died from, he took her to the local hospital in the nearby city of Husaybah, where doctors there told him that they could do nothing for her. He went to Baghdad where Iraqi doctors gave him the same story – they could do nothing.

Without treatment, Hadael’s health began deteriorating. That is when Ahmed sought the help of the Marines.

“She is alive right now because of the Americans,” said Ahmed. “My other children died because there is no medicine here in Iraq.”

Of the few U.S. medical centers with the facilities to handle special circumstances like Hadael’s, two have turned her case down, according to White.

“They’re explanation was that aside from the fact that the cost of treatment would be extreme…this would put this girl and her family through a tremendous ordeal to get them to the States and transplanting organs and still might have pretty low odds of success with the case,” said White, a 39-year-old from St. Paul, Minn.

“Their point is that, do we put these people through this? Do we spend this kind of money on a case that in all likelihood is not going to be successful?” he said. “That’s the hard calculus that they made.

Hadael has enough medicine for the next six months, thanks to donors in America. Now, a permanent solution is a race against time – finding an answer to her problem may take years – something her family can’t afford, according to the medical personnel here.

“She needs a kidney-liver transplant now,” said Elshire. “The longer they wait for a donor, the less chance she has of living.”

Even if Hamade receives a financial sponsor and medical institution willing to perform the surgery, there is also the likelihood that her whole family may have to relocate outside Iraq for her to receive the long-term follow up care that she will require, according to White.

For now, Hadael will make regular trips to the Marines’ base to receive her weekly medicine which is intended to raise her blood count, until a solution can be found through the work of non-profit organizations around the world.

The Marines say they will continue to visit Hadael’s family from time to time.

“Hadael doesn’t move around much because she is tired all the time,” said Kutner when he and other Marines visited the girl recently. “Other than sit in the living room watching T.V., she can’t do much.”

Hadael’s father says she doesn’t play with the other kids in her neighborhood and doesn’t smile much anymore, although when the Marines come around she smiles a bit more.

Staring at his daughter as she lies on a green stretcher, receiving medication inside the Marines’ medical facility in Al Qa’im, Ahmed says that now, “all that is left to do is wait.”

Email Cpl. Rosas at rosasa@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil