U.S. Doctors Help Iraqi Children in Jordan Iraqi children with heart defects have a difficult time getting the care they need. Doctors continue to flee the country's grinding violence. And the entire health care system is deteriorating at an alarming pace. Six Iraqi children received heart surgeries recently.
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U.S. Doctors Help Iraqi Children in Jordan

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U.S. Doctors Help Iraqi Children in Jordan

U.S. Doctors Help Iraqi Children in Jordan

U.S. Doctors Help Iraqi Children in Jordan

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Iraqi children with heart defects have a difficult time getting the care they need. Doctors continue to flee the country's grinding violence. And the entire health care system is deteriorating at an alarming pace. Six Iraqi children received heart surgeries recently.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Iraqi children with heart defects have trouble getting the care they need. Doctors continue to flee the country's violence. And the entire health care system is deteriorating at an alarming pace. So here's some good news. Six Iraqi children received heart surgeries recently, thanks to American doctors who volunteered their services.

Kristen Gillespie reports from Amman, in neighboring Jordan.

(Soundbite of child crying)

KRISTEN GILLESPIE: Baby Lena is just hours away from open-heart surgery. As she gurgles and reaches out to grab the microphone with her hands, this seven-month-old with plump cheeks shows few immediate signs that she has a hole in her heart and a blockage in a different part of it. But after a few minutes, Lena begins to breathe quickly, panting as if she were out of breath.

Lena was born with this condition. Her Aunt Hooda(ph) brought her to the Khalidi Hospital here in Amman because she says there was little hope that she could get the life-saving surgery she needed at home in Iraq.

HOODA (Baby Lena's aunt): (Through translator) Most of the good doctors have either fled or been killed.

GILLESPIE: Lena and five other Iraqi children with heart defects were brought here to be operated on by a team of volunteer American surgeons and nurses from Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis.

The program, called The Gift of Life International, is sponsored by the Rotary Club with branches in Indianapolis and Amman. The organization matches children in the Arab world needing heart surgery with international volunteers. Private donations funded the hotel and hospital stay, and an American construction company working in Iraq provided a plane to bring the Iraqi families in and out of Baghdad.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

GILLESPIE: Dr. Mark Turrentine is a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon. He and the rest of the group from Indianapolis just got out of their first heart surgery of the day. They're having a quick lunch before heading back into the operating room for the second child's surgery.

Dr. MARK TURRENTINE (Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgeon): Children with heart defects typically have low energy. They have difficulty gaining weight. They don't grow as well. They don't develop as well. Their lifestyle is quite limited. It's amazing with heart surgery that if you fix those elements their life, life expectancy and lifestyle changes almost immediately. And that's what's so gratifying about this kind of work.

GILLESPIE: By coming to Jordan, Mark Turrentine says he and the other surgeons could perform more surgeries at a much lower cost than flying each patient to the United States. And more surgeries mean more children getting better.

Dr. TURRENTINE: This trip is not about politics or religion. It's about just doing something for children.

GILLESPIE: Dr. Halad Salamay(ph) is a Jordanian pediatric cardiologist educated in Omaha and Cincinnati who's working this week with the American surgeons.

Dr. HALAD SALAMAY (Jordanian pediatric cardiologist): I think this is the way that we can break the ice between the American people and the Arabs in general, or people in the Middle East. Medicine is a way that we can work all together without any barriers.

GILLESPIE: Back in her hotel room, as she holds baby Lena, Hooda agrees.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

HOODA: (Through translator) We really hope that this is the beginning - that even though the circumstances are difficult, that the Americans will be able to help us more and more.

GILLESPIE: Like the other Iraqis at the hospital, Hooda asked that her real name not be used in order to avoid the repercussions at home for seeking treatment from American doctors. In Hooda and Lena's case, that prospect is a real one. They live in Gazalea, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in West Baghdad. Many of the area's residents served as officers or pilots in Saddam Hussein's armed forces. And there have been frequent clashes with Shiite militiamen from a neighboring district.

But for now, Hooda and her family in Baghdad are grateful that Lena may have a chance at life.

HOODA: (Through translator) Wherever you go, there are good people and bad people. But we know that Americans like to do good deeds for others and to help children and sick and needy people. And we thank them for this surgery.

GILLESPIE: Lena's surgery was performed this week and deemed a success by the American doctors. She's already returned home to Baghdad, where she'll face a whole new set of challenges. For NPR News, I'm Kristen Gillespie in Amman, Jordan.

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