By Spc. Chris McCann
2nd BCT, 10th Mtn. Div. PAO
FORWARD OPERATING BASE YUSUFIYAH, Iraq — News from Iraq often deals with major military operations and attacks, featuring numbers and statistics. But statistics can’t show the delicate stories that sometimes appear in the apparent chaos.
Maj. Kenneth Stone, a native of Ames, Iowa, is the battalion surgeon for the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment “Polar Bears,” 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) out of Fort Drum, N.Y., and he has a special project – to help an Iraqi girl avoid certain death. The fight is far from over.
When Sabrine’s father, Muhammad, brought her to the Yusufiyah aid station, Stone was the only provider who could have recognized the congenital deformity in her heart.
Stone specializes in cardiac medicine, although as a battalion surgeon in a combat zone, he spends more time treating battle trauma and the minor illnesses of Soldiers and local Iraqis who come to the battalion aid station for treatment. Sabrine’s case is different.
“She has a ventricular septal defect,” Stone said. “Basically it’s a hole in her heart, between the ventricles.
“I jumped all over this because it was something cardiology-related,” Stone explained. “It really grabbed my interest. When her father brought her in and had no specific complaints except a heart problem, it sounded like a VSD to me.”
Stone explained that as the heart pumps, blood flows through the defect from the left ventricle to the right ventricle. This forces extra blood into the pulmonary arteries, and in the left atrium and left ventricle. It also mixes unoxygenated blood into the oxygenated blood leaving the heart – which means less oxygen gets to the muscles. Untreated, the extra workload makes the heart pump less efficiently, and eventually fail.
Muhammad told Stone that he had planned to have her heart surgically repaired in 2003, but the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq prevented it. Since she is still young, her heart has been able to handle the delay.
But when he brought her to Stone, he unknowingly did so at a time when everything lined up just right.
Capt. Chris Tilton, a Boston native who works in the Yusufiyah aid station with Stone, said he was amazed by the circumstances.
“This kid could not have presented at a better time,” Tilton said. “The stars lined up just right, to have a cardiologist here, with a friend who works at the 28th Combat Support Hospital and a pediatric cardiologist in charge of medical operations in Baghdad. She wouldn’t have received the care she’s hopefully going to get now. If she had come in while we were transitioning when we first got here, or if (Maj.) Stone hadn’t been here, we might not have even caught that there was a problem.”
Stone served his cardiac medicine fellowship with a doctor who currently serves at the 28th CSH.
“I asked for an echocardiogram to be done, to see if the defect was still correctable, so we took her to the hospital about two weeks ago,” he said.
By what Stone called “blind luck,” Col. Felicia Pehrson, the Multi-National Forces-Iraq surgeon and chief of clinical operations at the 28th CSH, who specializes in pediatric cardiology and doesn’t get to do it often in Iraq.
Sabrine’s heart is still correctable, and the two cardiologists hope to be able to get Sabrine to a hospital outside Iraq for the surgery to repair the VSD. The 28th CSH is so overwhelmed with trauma patients that they simply cannot provide the surgery, although Pearson knows a doctor in Paris who is interested in handling the case, and a Jordanian cardiologist has expressed interest as well.
They’ve also gone to the National Iraqi Assistance Center, an organization that helps with cases like this. But recent unrest in Baghdad has kept the workers of the NAIC from being able to leave the International Zone.
“If she can get treated, she could have a normal life,” Tilton said. “But we can only do what we can do. Out of everything I’ve seen here, she’s the one with the potential to be the biggest humanitarian relief success story.”
Coordinating visas, travel vouchers, money, and other necessary things to get Sabrine to surgery is difficult, Stone said.
“Her dad is really agonizing – it’s his daughter. I’m a parent, I understand how that feels, and I want this to work out so she can get surgery. But the CSH gets requests like this all the time and they have to turn people down. She’s getting this possibility because I’m her advocate, but in Iraq, there are probably hundreds of kids who need this and can’t it, and will die.”
Stone said he hopes to get a charitable organization to help defray the costs of Sabrine’s needs.
“It could take a few weeks – of course, it could fall through, with nothing happening at all, although I hope not.
“Sometimes I wonder if it’s right to help one child, when I can’t do it for everyone, but obviously it will feel good if it goes through.”
Friday, July 13, 2007
By Spc. Chris McCann