Saving Shahad and Ruqaya: Utah Guard Helps Iraqi Girls Get Lifesaving Surgery

 

By Chaplan (Maj.) Clay Anstead

Published December 9, 2008

 

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Ruqaya, left, and Shahad, five and ten years old, respectively, await surgery in Portland, Me., Dec. 1.

Photo by Susan MacKenzie

Ruqaya, left, and Shahad, five and ten years old,

respectively, await surgery in Portland, Me., Dec. 1.

PORTLAND, Me.  Unexpectedly, members of the Utah National Guard have developed a unique skill during wartime deployments; one that is not taught in any Advanced Individual Training school:  rescuing little children with congenital heart conditions.

It all started with a little girl named Noor back in 2005, who came to the attention of the 115th Engineer Group during their stay in Iraq. Noor had a heart with a congenital birth defect and faced a life of severe physical limitations and an almost-certain premature death. Noor was bright and willing, but there was no skilled physician or medical facility to provide her the treatment she needed in her native country. Her family was poor and Iraq was in the middle of a bloody struggle for freedomlong odds, to be sure.

Fortunately for Noor, there is a predisposition in military members to face obstacles and overcome them somehow with whatever resources at hand.  While he was home on leave, Chaplain (Maj.) Joel Miller, a staff officer in the 115th, puzzled over what might be done to help this child.  He attended Governor's Day back in Utah, and not knowing what else to do, started telling colleagues about Noor's case and asking for connections or leads to any possible source of assistance for her.

Grandmother Halima, left, and Shahad enjoy an outing at the Portland Head Lighthouse prior to Shahad's surgery.

Photo by Tammie Anstead

Grandmother Halima, left, and Shahad enjoy an outing

at the Portland Head Lighthouse prior to Shahad's surgery.

Serendipitously, one of the chaplains happened to know of a pediatric heart surgeon in Portland, Maine, who could possibly point the 115th in the right direction.  Officials contacted Dr. Reed Quinn, a Utah native, and he was only too glad to inform the 115th that he would not only be pleased to perform the needed surgery for free, but he also happened to have created a charitable foundation for the very purpose of bringing in children from places where care was not available, covering all other expenses involved. 

Arranging for the doctor turned out to be the easy part. Navigating the bureaucratic red tape involved in getting Noor and her father out of the country legally and making transportation arrangements turned out to be the real hurdle.  With the bright hope of help awaiting, and with the life of a small child hanging in the balance, it wasn't hard for those of the 115th  involved to produce the dogged determination needed to succeed, and succeed they did. Noor came with her father to the U.S., and she received the needed life-saving surgery from Dr. Quinn.

Shahad, left, and Ruqaya take a test drive in a motorbus exhibit at the Portland Children's Museum.

Photo by Tammie Anstead

Shahad, left, and Ruqaya take a test drive in a

motorbus exhibit at the Portland Children's Museum.

When the 145th Field Artillery from the Utah National Guard deployed to Camp Bucca in 2007, a similar opportunity to help other children seemed unlikely. Camp Bucca is the largest detention center in the history of the U.S. Military, but it isn't located in a densely populated area, and there isn't much interaction with the locals, except by the small Civil Affairs unit that goes out doing whatever good they can in the surrounding communities.  Despite these circumstances, an unlikely connection opened the door for Dr. Quinn to work some more magic on two more children.

Major Hucks, director of Civil Affairs at Camp Bucca, leads a team that provides community outreach and attempts to link resources to needs to assist the civilian population.  He and his assistants, a translator named Noosh and Sgt. 1st Class Adam Kirschner, were attempting to get a boy named Mohammed to Italy for heart surgery and running into great difficulty making travel arrangements from Southern Iraq. 

A "family" picture with, from right to left, Grandmother Halima, Shahad, Ruqaya and Mother Siham.

Photo by Tammie Anstead

A "family" picture with, from right to left, Grandmother

Halima, Shahad, Ruqaya and Mother Siham.

As Hucks was about to go on leave he visited the chapel at Bucca to promote what Civil Affairs was doing and mentioned the boy’s case.  Mohammed's father was a detainee at Camp Bucca, which is how his case had come to their attention.  This was a great opportunity to foster goodwill, but the situation was beginning to look rather bleak because of the distances involved in pushing the paperwork through.  Because of Noor's situation, Chaplain (Maj.) Clay Anstead, of the 145th, was keenly interested in helping yet another child get the medical help they needed and volunteered to assist while Hucks was gone on leave.

Mohammed's case was successfully managed, and he was able to go to Italy and have the surgery.  Because of the close working relationship Anstead developed with the Civil Affairs members, he was able to tell them about Dr. Quinn and the help he would offer to other children with similar needs. The Civil Affairs members put out the word, and a handful of cases came forward from the community.  Now, six months after the 145th returned to Utah, the first of these cases, two little girls from Basra, Shahad and Ruqaya, have come to Maine to be treated by Dr. Quinn.

A postsurgery photo of Ruqaya, Shahad, and their grandmother and mother at Ronald McDonald House in Portand.

Photo by Susan MacKenzie

A postsurgery photo of Ruqaya, Shahad, and their

grandmother and mother at Ronald McDonald House in Portand.

Shahad is ten years old, very cheerful and sweet, while Ruqaya is a shy and strong-willed five-year-old. Anstead and his wife, Tammie, traveled to Maine just before the girls had their operations to meet them and treat them to a day out in Portland. They visited the Children's Museum there and then took them to see the Portland Head Lighthouse and their first close-up look at the ocean. 

Just a few days later, Shahad had her surgery.  A hole between the lower chambers of her heart was patched closed and the pulmonary artery reshaped and reconnected for better function.  The operation was approximately four hours long, and was a complete success. Shahad can look forward to a full and long life now. 

Ruqaya underwent her surgery Dec. 1. Fortunately for her, the procedure did not involve opening her chest. The doctors were able to make the refinements needed by instruments inserted through a vein in her leg, reducing her recovery time to only a few days.

Such miracles are so commonly available to us that they are easy to take for granted. For Shahad and Ruqaya, life depended on two miracles: the miracle of American generosity and medical technology.