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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This story contains graphic hospital scenes that may be difficult to hear. I first met the Hanoudis as a war correspondent in 2003. Dr. Najeeb Hanoudi was a widely respected, Christian, 68-year-old ophthalmologist who trained at Oxford. He supported the American invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and so did his grown son, Nazar.

Najeeb told some American officers where there was a secret cache of Saddam's weapons. Nazar worked for the American military. I lived with this family in the Mansour neighborhood of western Baghdad in the spring of 2004. In 2007, they came as refugees to the suburbs of Detroit. When I visit them now, the only place we go is a nursing home.

Dr. NAJEEB HANOUDI (Iraqi Ophthalmologist): Jacki, we are not very far from where we're going. It's something like half a mile. It's the place where Nazar has been staying for almost a year now. It's called Greenfield Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center.

LYDEN: Nazar is Najeeb's oldest son. Nazar is the Hanoudi's whole world now. Najeeb, his wife, Firyal, and their son Samer complete the foursome. They have a daughter in Canada who isn't permitted to cross the border.

Hi, Samer.

Mr. SAMER HANOUBI: Hey, Jacki.

LYDEN: Maybe Nazar knows he's in a hospital bed and that I'm here, maybe not. Samer, speaking over the oxygen pump, can't decide.

Mr. SAMER HANOUBI: I'm not going to be 100 percent sure because the only way that he can do any response is laughing, not more than that, you know, or having some sad face or happy face or, you know. Because he's here, you know, but he doesn't have the tools to explain the - but he cries, too, you know, sometimes of the news or the situation is very sad, you can see some tears on the back of his eyes.

LYDEN: Nazar had been working as a contractor for the American military after the invasion. He went in and out of checkpoints every day.

Dr. HANOUDI: But on that fateful day, he was trying to get into the camp through a different checkpoint. And apparently, the fellow who was manning the checkpoint didn't know him, so he shot him.

LYDEN: It was a gunshot wound to the stomach. But it was the transfer in and out of hospitals that weakened Nazar. On his way back into the Green Zone from an Iraqi hospital, where they couldn't complete dialysis, his heart stopped. The Iraqi ambulance ran out of oxygen. For 14 minutes, he was in cardiac arrest. When the American doctors in the Green Zone brought him back, he was a changed man. Nazar is now nearly 40. He's been stretched out on tiny cots for almost five years, unmoving. He still has the widest, bluest eyes with long, long lashes. Sometimes, they blink. Sometimes, the Hanoudis have to add eye drops.

Dr. HANOUDI: Actually, he is a fairly advanced case, I mean, this is the reality of thing. He is what we call a vegetative state. Vegetative state is not death. When we were students, they used to tell us that this is clinical dead. But this is not clinical dead, and the boy is not dead. I mean, he is certainly not dead. He listens very nicely. His hearing ability is almost perfect. I'm sure he also sees with his eyes, but we cannot say how much function there is there because assessing a visual capacity is something subjective. You have to have a response from your patient. But I have a feeling that he sees a good deal.

LYDEN: Najeeb, who is Christian, is the sort of man who speaks of life as a generous gift. He does not dwell on what he calls the tragedy.

Dr. HANOUDI: We have been helped by a bunch of people we never knew before, and they provided, and they gave us, actually, at least sometimes, immense...

(Soundbite of gurgling noise)

LYDEN: This is the sound the Hanoudis live for now. It's the most overt physiological response Nazar produces, the sound of phlegm building up in Nazar's throat. He can't expel it himself, so he begins to cough and then to choke. If no one were here with him, well then, he'd die. So, they are always with him, suctioning out the secretions when he gags.

(Soundbite of suctioning machine)

LYDEN: Najeeb and I return home. I never see the family all together, and no one is with Nazar more than his mother, Firyal. She sleeps by his bedside every night. She barely sees her husband, who takes a shift from mid-morning 'til afternoon. They've managed this way for over a year now. Having cooked an enormous meal for him, she puts on her coat while Najeeb wolfs down supper.

Ms. FIRYAL HANOUDI: I go to nursing home from my son because he is need me. Because I give him medicine and to speak with him because he's my - and listen for me, and when he look for me, he is fine.

LYDEN: What do you say to him?

Ms. HANOUDI: My love, how are you? You are very good.

(Crying) I can't - you look your daughter. She is very beautiful.

LYDEN: You show him pictures of his daughter.

Ms. HANOUDI: (Crying) Yes. She is now 5 years. I always - I - 5 years now, I am 24 hours with him.

LYDEN: Nazar has never seen his 5-year-old daughter, nor she him. He was just about to join his wife in Australia when the accident happened. With meat and cheese for her meals, Firyal leaves Najeeb at home.

Dr. HANOUBI: Now, I feel a great responsibility. When we are coming here and staying the nights and staying the days and having our life changed absolutely upside-down, and me having to stop my work and forget about my excellence in ophthalmology, I'm doing it because I have to do it. I feel like we have to do this. When he was discharged from the American Hospital in Baghdad, you see, one of the doctors said this situation is probably going to last a very long time. I said, this is why we are here, and we are prepared to stay beside him because he is our responsibility for the next few months, for the next few years, even for the next few centuries.

LYDEN: Over a week ago, Firyal Hanoudi was forced to leave her son's side. She is 65, and was treated for a blockage of her carotid artery. Then, she suffered a heart attack. She underwent open-heart surgery and is recovering in the hospital. Samer is with her most of the day. That means Najeeb must care for Nazar himself. When I left him, he was sitting in his modest, two-story townhouse that he shares with his wife and son, reading. He reads and thinks about everything that has happened to them.

Dr. HANOUDI: I've always believed in fate. Actually, there is a saying in Arabic which translates very badly into something like, what you are going to see with your eyes has been written very early on your forehead. I am a very strong believer in this philosophy. I have been through - especially during the last few years - I have been through some episodes which are impossible to explain on anything less than something which has been written on the forehead - fate.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: But this is not the fate I imagined for an old friend now in his mid-70s, whose path I followed for years. It's not the fate his military friends who have honored him imagined. It's something bigger and more silent and crushing. And I can only wish that I could change it.

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