Iraqi girl captures hearts at U.S. combat hospital
November 1, 2003
LSA ANACONDA, Iraq — Her eyes are deep, dark pools of charm and she has used them to capture the hearts of nearly everyone at the 21st Combat Support Hospital.
She has been showered with attention, affection and stuffed animals.
And the prognosis for Aya, 6, an Iraqi girl who came to the hospital four weeks ago with severe burns, is good.
“It’s very good. About a week ago, she turned the corner nutritionally,” said Dr. (Col.) Russ Martin, a surgeon treating Aya. “Everyone in the ward could see it. She started to whine and be crabby, which is good.”
Had Aya not been brought to the hospital on this sprawling logistics base, Martin is convinced she would have died. Ten days after falling onto a hot clay oven while wearing a nylon dress that melted to her skin, she showed up at the gates of LSA Anaconda.
“She was brought to the front gate in the back of a pickup truck, laying on filthy blankets, covered by flies,” said Martin. She had not eaten in the 10 days since she fell, burning her back and buttocks, arm and leg.
It is not uncommon for the hospital to have Iraqi patients in its beds. Anyone injured by Americans — either shot or hit by a vehicle, for example — can be treated at the hospital. The rest are assessed on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s supposed to be life, limb or eyesight,” said Lt. Col. Roxanne Ahrman, assistant chief nurse. “It depends on what the patient looks like at the time.”
The doctors don’t want the Iraqis to become reliant on the Americans. Martin said the Iraqi doctors in nearby Balad are well-trained and qualified. They may lack equipment, but they are competent physicians capable of caring for their countrymen.
“There’s a lot of sadness in this country that we’re not going to be able to fix,” he said. “Our primary mission is to take care of wounded soldiers. We need to be good stewards with the resources we have.
“It’s very difficult to turn somebody away.”
Martin did so recently when a child was brought to the gate suffering from a seizure disorder. The hospital doesn’t have a pediatrician or a neurologist.
A mother once arrived at the gate with her 8-year old son, who had a piece of shrapnel in his brain. Iraqi doctors had already treated him and Martin determined there was nothing more that could be done.
To put the mother at ease, however, they brought the boy to the hospital, took more X-rays and once again assured the mother that he would be fine even with no more treatment.
“That was something we did because we could and because we had the resources,” said Martin.
But Aya was different, and the intervention by the doctors probably saved her life.
“I’m convinced she would have died,” said Martin to explain why he admitted her.
He e-mailed colleagues back at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, who sent him boxes of what he would need to treat the young patient, including cadaver skin to be used as a natural bandage.
Since Aya had not eaten, Martin said, her early treatment was simply to give her food and treat her for any infections. For more than three weeks, her father stayed at her side, never leaving.
Only on Saturday did Martin do skin grafts on the girl’s leg. He hopes her back will heal without the need for a graft.
Faris Abdully Salah, Aya’s father, is happy with his daughter’s progress.
“Excellent. Very good,” he said through a translator when asked to describe his daughter’s care. “There is a big difference from when she was brought here.”
As Aya became a celebrity in the hospital, her status has been followed with interest back home, where friends and family of hospital staff have become interested in the little girl with the big eyes.
“I think half the state of Texas is asking for progress on this little girl,” Martin said. “I think it’s been good for the hospital’s morale.”
Not every case is so successful. Ahrman said one little girl died after being brought to the hospital for care. “That was very, very sad,” she said. “As in America, kids aren’t supposed to die.”
The hospital now has another young Iraqi girl in its intensive care unit. She was brought to the hospital with a fractured heel bone and an infection, but is expected to be released soon.
But it is Aya who hospital staff members will probably remember when they return to the States.
“She’s getting used to us,” said Capt. Rikkina Pulliam, a registered nurse. “Some days she smiles with us a lot more. ... She has days where she’s fussy, but she’s 6. We expect that.”
Iraqi man gets shot, catches break
LSA ANACONDA, Iraq — The Iraqi man caught a break when an American soldier shot him in the gut in late June.
American doctors at the 21st Combat Support Hospital repairing the damage found a surgical sponge left inside the young man a month earlier when Iraqi doctors fixed a stab wound.
“We saw this little area that looked suspicious,” said Dr. (Maj.) Nhat Nguyen. “We thought, ‘What is that?’ We started pulling and tugging.”
The sponge probably would not have killed the man, but it would have provided him with some discomfort that would have been nearly impossible to diagnose, said Nguyen.
The American doctors in Iraq care for Iraqis injured by Americans, either through gunshot wounds or vehicle accidents. Sometimes they also treat civilians who have serious illnesses or injuries.
When the looter was brought to the hospital at LSA Anaconda, about 40 miles north of Baghdad, on June 20 with a wound in the abdomen, doctors noticed a scar from a fairly recent surgery. They later learned it was a stab wound.
“We call them ‘frequent flyers’ in the States,” said Nguyen, a reference to people like gang members, for example, who have repeated injuries due to violence.
Nguyen said the man appeared to have an infection brewing in his midsection because of the sponge.
“He may have had symptoms all along. We don’t know,” he said.
Nguyen doesn’t know what happened to the man, who was taken into custody because he was seen looting. But the doctor knows the man isn’t suffering from any unknown stomach woes.
“In a way,” said Nguyen, “he was fortunate he got shot.”
– Ron Jensen