By Tim Bonfield
Enquirer staff writer
CORRYVILLE - An 8-year-old girl from Iraq is expected to have life-saving, open-heart surgery today at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center - thanks in part to a military physician's assistant from West Virginia and an Anderson Township family who will house the girl and her escorts.
The girl, Fatima Saad Abdul-Aziz, was brought in early May to a U.S. military base outside Baghdad by her father seeking medical help.
Her situation captured the attention of 2nd Lt. Todd Wilson, a physician's assistant in the Army's 1st Infantry Division.
Wilson worked for months to arrange for her treatment.
It turns out that Fatima was born with a hole between the chambers of her heart requiring advanced surgical treatment to repair - an operation that could not be performed in war-torn Iraq. Then, in recent weeks, she developed a life-threatening infection in her heart tissue.
Various charity organizations have arranged for a number of wounded and severely ill Iraqi civilians to be transported to the United States and other nations for advanced medical care.
Fatima is the first child from Iraq to be treated at Cincinnati Children's since the war began.
"(Wilson) went through a lot of extra effort and a lot of red tape to get this girl over here. If it would have taken a few more months, she would have died," said Dr. Peter Manning, director of cardiothoracic surgery at Cincinnati Children's.
Fatima is traveling with an aunt and a cardiologist from Iraq. She originally was scheduled to have surgery several weeks from now. But doctors decided to act sooner because of the infection, said Dr. Manning, who will lead the surgical team today.
In the United States, children born with this kind of heart defect are typically treated successfully as toddlers, even as infants.
Wilson could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But in e-mails he sent to Dr. Manning, he explained why he got involved.
"She is a sweet girl - I would love to help her," Wilson wrote.
"These children are innocent and impressionable. The oppression that their families have lived through is unknown to them. Our hospitality, and concern for them may make a lasting impression. They are the future of Iraq. "
How Fatima wound up in Cincinnati was part luck and part illustration of how widely known the medical center has become.
In his civilian life, Wilson works for an adult-focused cardiology group in Charleston, W.Va. By coincidence, one of the doctors in that group - Dr. Nestor Dans - trained with Dr. Manning in Kansas City, Mo., about 10 years ago.
The two doctors stayed in touch. When Wilson informed the group about Fatima, Dans suggested contacting Dr. Manning. The group had consulted with Manning.
Hospital administrators had to approve providing the charity care from a limited budget set aside for unusual international cases.
While Dr. Manning obtained approval, Wilson enlisted the help of a charity group called Shevet Achim to help arrange transportation and lodging in the United States.
Fatima's father could not obtain a visa. Her mother could not travel because she has three other daughters to care for. So an aunt who lives and teaches in Baghdad - and speaks English - agreed to serve as guardian and translator.
Meanwhile, Marian and Dick Tarvin of Anderson Township agreed to serve as Fatima's host family. Marian became interested in the Middle East after starting a pen-pal relationship as a child with a child in Israel's West Bank.
They heard about Fatima in early July through a family friend who got a message from Shevet Achim The organization arranges care for Arab children, mostly in Israeli hospitals. The Tarvins jumped at the chance to help.
Last week, Fatima was so sick from her infection that she was barely conscious. Tuesday, she was perky enough to play dominoes with Dick Tarvin.
Her surgery is expected to take at least five hours. If all goes well, Fatima is expected to stay here up to two months.
"She wants to see the zoo and the aquarium, and she wants to meet our grandchildren," Marian said.
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