Today we cranked up the “cath lab” for the first time ever in the city of Fallujah.
It’s a great honor for everyone on the team to be here; it’s history in the making everywhere we go and expectations are high. People are warm, welcoming, and excited about what we’re doing. This is not the Fallujah you’ve heard about on the news.
As much as we hate to relive the past, the significance of our invitation to Fallujah can only be understood in the context of recent years. At the beginning of the 2003 war, Fallujah was known as a support base for Saddam Hussein’s regime. On the birthday of Saddam Hussein, who was still at large, crowds gathered and protested US soldiers encamped in a local school. Shots were fired and the resulting chaos left 17 dead, including women and children, and 70 injured. The incident set the tone for years of local intransigence against US troops.
A year later, four private American contractors were killed and mutilated by mobs in the street, their bodies were hung from the “Brooklyn Bridge” on the west end of town.
Further hostilities, attacks, and vitriolic sermons finally gave way to the Battle of Fallujah in 2004.
As the smoke cleared in the years that followed, Sunnis across the Anbar province began joining the “Awakening” movement—an alliance against terrorism. Terrorism decreased significantly and life returned to normal in Fallujah.
But everything was not as normal as it seemed. In local hospitals, people like Dr. Samira al-Ani (Alani) were collecting data that would ultimately make its way into peer-reviewed journals claiming that nearly 1 in 7 children were being born with birth defects.
Although Dr. Samira and her colleagues never made explicit claims or accusations of causality, residents naturally began to associate the rise in birth defects with U.S. weapons—both white phosphorous and depleted uranium. No research exists to substantiate such claims.
But their claims were enough to catch my attention. And that, in large part, is why we’re here today.
I’m excited that we—you included—finally have the chance to save lives in Fallujah! Stay tuned for more information about the groundbreaking work we’re doing…
Our 85 suture kits are FULLY funded — Thank you for helping fund $765 worth of medical supplies!
Right off the bat, I got to be a part of something awesome here in Iraq.
I joined PLC’s groundbreaking research in the city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. Many reports in recent years claim that there are more heart defects in Iraq than other countries in the Middle East. In Fallujah, news reports state 10 times more birth defects than the world average. However, these numbers are based on general observations, not a systematic study. Is it possible that doctors who only see sick children would think there are many more birth defects than there really are?
The best way to find out if there are more kids being born with broken hearts is to count all the children who are born, then see how many have heart defects are detected. That way, the number of healthy babies can be compared to the number of babies with defects to get an accurate ratio of sick to healthy babies. This is exactly what we did in the city of Dohuk.
Alongside long-time friend and partner of PLC, Dr. Kirk Milhoan and Dr. Serdar Pedawi, I was a part of a research team working to identify the heart defect “incidence” or number of new cases of babies born with heart defects out of all babies born over a certain time period. We set up camp at Azadi Teaching Hospital in Dohuk, and every child that was born came to us to be screened for heart defects.
This was done using an echocardiogram (ECHO) machine, which is similar to an ultrasound that allows pregnant mothers to see their babies. It provides a way to look at the heart from the outside, quickly and painlessly. All children born in Azadi Hospital during the week of the study had to be screened in order to obtain their birth certificate, so we were able to screen more than 180 kids!
Each individual encounter was very similar. The moms were usually too worn out from childbirth to bring the babies to us (understandably so!). It fell to the grandmothers and aunts to take care of the newborn while mom got some rest. It was beautiful to see how much love and care was shown to each baby we screened. They were all wrapped tightly in brightly colored clothes and tucked into what I can only describe as a fancy baby sleeping bag.
The children truly lived up to the phrase of “bundles of joy.” The pride and joy of family members was evident, but with it came the anxious fear that their baby could have something wrong with their heart. Immediately at the time of the screening we could tell the family the result of the ECHO.
Thankfully, the vast majority of children had completely normal hearts and their family was always relieved and ecstatic to hear the good news. But there were some babies who did indeed have heart defects. Some had leaky heart valves and others had holes in their heart. Assurance was given to the families that these were not immediately life-threatening emergencies, but that their baby needed to be checked again in a few weeks to see what kind of treatment would be needed to live a normal healthy life.
Dr. Serdar works full time as a Pediatric Cardiologist in Dohuk, and thus will take care of these babies directly. Research can sometimes be all about collecting numbers, but this research heavily emphasized providing practical medical care for those who were found to have heart defects.
It was an absolutely incredible experience to interact with the Kurdish and Arab families in Dohuk as well as to be a part of a first-ever scientific study. It was very fulfilling to contribute to the gathering of facts, which is a large part of why I’m pursuing a Master’s in Public Health. Having solid facts puts Preemptive Love Coalition that much closer to eradicating the backlog by treating kids who need lifesaving heart surgeries.
This research is the first step in providing information for the Kurdish Regional and Iraqi Central Government and any other organization that wants an answer to the question: how many Iraqi children are being born with heart defects?
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got in the car and drove five hours north to the Kurdish city of Dohuk.
I was told we would be screening children for congenital heart disease (CHD), but since I’m not in the field of medicine and am a newcomer to PLC, I wasn’t exactly sure what that would look like. All I knew was that this was going to be a first-time experience for me and that I was excited.
I walked into the experience with an open mind and an open heart, and I walked away with a new understanding of what it means to screen babies for CHD and why that has everything to do with understanding and fighting the backlog of children waiting in line for lifesaving heart surgery here in Iraq.
In the end, we spent the week screening newborns using two echo machines. Dr. Kirk (whom we’ve partnered with before) preformed an echo using a V-scan, a pocket-sized ultrasound device while Dr. Serdar—the local Kurdish cardiologist who we partnered with for the mission—used a full-size echo machine.
Each morning we walked into the hospital and screened the children who were born that day as well as the children who were born the previous night. More often than not, grandmothers would carry in children who were barely minutes old. Their vibrancy and freshness to life continually brightened the room.
Along with the spirited children, we saw timid mothers, brand new fathers, and bashful siblings—all of which were hoping to hear good news about their brand new family member. It was such a joy to be able to see the relief and joy on many of the families’ faces as they heard the words “healthy heart!”
In addition to performing two screenings per a child, we conducted interviews with parents and close relatives of the babies. The interviews make up a collection of data on the parents of the child, which will later be analyzed by Dr. Kirk as he searches to better understand the conditions that lead to CHD.
By the close of the week, Dr. Kirk and Dr. Serdar felt well on their way to being able to make a more solid assessment of the CHD situation in the Dohuk region of Iraqi Kurdistan – and a more solid assessment is exactly what we need if we’re going to eradicate the backlog.
I feel truly blessed to have been a part of this screening mission. Not only did I learn a ton, but I forged new friendships and had an amazing time.