Little Rhma has a new color about her.


Because of a congenital heart defect, the tiny 5-year-old Iraqi girl hasn’t had that healthy glow that comes with well-oxygenated blood circulating through the body.

But on Monday, Rhma underwent heart surgery in Albuquerque that saved her life and put her in the pink.

“She no longer is the color of a blueberry!” exclaimed Debbie O’Rourke, president of the New Mexico chapter of Healing the Children, a nonprofit organization that played a role in a huge mission that started with a few motivated infantry soldiers and progressed to involving Healing the Children, U.S. Embassy staffs, Capitol Hill, and a hospital and surgeons who donated to the life-saving effort.

Rhma was born with two holes between the upper and lower chambers of her heart, and a ventricle that fails to properly circulate her blood.

Her lips had a bluish tint, and the tips of her hands and feet were swollen and turned purplish-blue, a symptom called “clubbing” caused by poor blood circulation, explained Dr. (Maj.) Dave Brown, surgeon for 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, who first examined Rhma in May.

If the problem is left untreated, her limbs might have been amputated, and the pressure imbalance eventually would have worn out her heart.

Brown and Capt. Paul Carron, Company C commander, were instrumental in making the right connections that got Rhma from Mosul to Baghdad, then to the U.S. Embassy in Jordan and on to the U.S. for treatment. Her last name is not being published because her family fears retaliation for accepting help from Americans.

It all started during a late-night raid on May 20 in which “Deuce-Four” soldiers Pfc. Matthew Nolan and Spc. Matthew English came across the pale, frightened little girl with brown eyes as big as saucers. The Fort Lewis, Wash.-based battalion returned home last month after a year in Iraq.

Weak, malnourished and the size of a 2-year-old, Rhma arrived “in pretty bad shape,” said Dr. Carl Lagerstrom, the cardiac surgeon at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque who performed Monday’s two-hour surgery.

“It’s amazing she’s still alive. Most children with her problem don’t live to be her age,” he said in a phone interview. “She’s a sickly little girl.”

But healing.

Lagerstrom said he took a graft from an artery and directed more blood flow to her lungs so that her blood gets more oxygen. She arrived with an oxygen saturation level, or the amount of oxygen in the blood system, of 40 percent. A healthy level is 100 percent.

Now, Rhma is measuring a saturation reading of about 80 percent, and she’s eating better, even though she’s not crazy about the hospital food, he laughed.

“She looks like a different child,” said Pam English, the mother of one of the “Deuce-Four” soldiers who discovered Rhma and also a pediatric intensive care nurse at Presbyterian. “Her mom just kept holding her hands, looking at her nail beds (nails) and smiling.”

It had been a long and arduous job getting Rhma to the States. Her paperwork was held up at the U.S. Embassy in Jordan for nearly a month. Involvement of staffers from Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., the only woman military veteran currently in Congress and the first Air Force Academy graduate in Congress, dislodged the bureaucratic red tape.

Healing the Children paid travel costs for Rhma and her mother, and paired the mother and child with an Arabic-speaking “foster family” in Albuquerque, O’Rourke said.

Healing the Children helps thousands of U.S. and foreign children, from supplying eye glasses to dental checks, funding co-pays for medication, and organizing surgeons and hospitals to donate services, such as heart surgery, she said.

Rhma will likely be out of the hospital in a week, and possibly on her way home in about two or three weeks, Lagerstrom said.

Surgeries similar to hers cost roughly $80,000, O’Rourke said.

But for Rhma, doctors won’t be sending a bill.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now