Cadets, grads play role in Iraqi boy's Charleston visit
This story appeared in The Post and Courier in Charleston on Friday, April 11, 2008. Because of its multiple connections to The Citadel, it is being reprinted with permission of The Post and Courier.
By Jill Coley
The Post and Courier
Five-year-old Ammar Muhammed fell asleep, curled on his father's lap. The blue tint of his skin matched his tiny patient gown.
His father, Ammad Muhammed, carried his son all the way from Haditha, Iraq, for a lifesaving heart surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Ammar has Tetralogy of Fallot, a complex of four heart abnormalities that starves blood of oxygen, turning the boy's skin blue. One of the most common congenital heart defects, the syndrome is treated surgically in U.S. children before their first birthday.
But health care is not the same in Iraq. To pay for the surgery, the East Cooper Breakfast Rotary Club secured a Gift of Life grant from Rotary International. The cost of the surgery varies widely depending on subsequent intensive care, an MUSC spokeswoman said.
Getting father and son to Charleston for the upcoming surgery Monday was the work of the Marines, who raised money in Iraq to pay for the airfare.
A lieutenant in the Iraqi police force, Muhammed worked side by side with the Marines and found a friend in Maj. Kevin Jarrard. Jarrard, a 1995 Citadel graduate, reached out to the East Cooper Breakfast Rotary Club for help after he learned of Muhammed's son.
In January, Jarrard helped another Iraqi child, a 2-year-old girl, travel to the U.S. for heart surgery in Nashville, Tenn.
With the help of translators from The Citadel, Muhammed said, "My job is to fight off people who try to kill Iraqi citizens."
He has known 150 people who have been killed in the conflict. "The situation in Baghdad is harsh for everybody, especially the citizens of Iraq, Muhammed said. "On a daily basis there are three or four explosions in Baghdad."
By contrast, he's found the U.S. peaceful and quiet since their arrival Saturday in Charleston. Rotary member Steve Peper and his wife, Cindy, have welcomed the pair into their Mount Pleasant home.
The men use a computer to type and translate questions to each other. "There is no language barrier when it's a father who would travel so far to save his child's life," said Peper, also a Citadel graduate.
Gift of Life is a Rotary-sponsored program that is dedicated to helping children with heart defects. The East Cooper Breakfast Rotary Club helps three to four children a year, Peper said.
Muhammed and his wife, who have six children, first noticed symptoms in Ammar when he was about a year old. Bluish skin, shortness of breath and fainting are typical in children with blue-baby syndrome, often a symptom of Tetralogy of Fallot in young children.
Untreated, children with the syndrome rarely live long into their teenage years, said Dr. Andy Atz, director of MUSC's Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.
In the 1950s, before pediatric cardiac surgery was well-established, children were treated at age 4 or 5, Atz said. Doctors noticed that their young patients would squat frequently, a primal mechanism to force blood back to the heart for oxygen.
Ammar squatted on his father's lap Thursday before undergoing a minor dental procedure. Removing a few baby teeth with cavities reduced the risk of infection after the heart surgery.
Atz expects the boy's color to return quickly after surgery. "We can make a dramatic difference with a single surgery," he said. "We will make the oxygen level normal."
Citadel cadets Mohamed Nass and Bader Alduaini, members of the Middle Eastern Studies Student Association, translated for The Post and Courier and hospital staff.