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May 26, 2006

Seven-year-old Iraqi girl travels to U-M for heart surgery

Healing the Children and Michigan Congenital Heart Center team up to bring child and her mother to U-M for repair of serious birth defects

UPDATE: June 12, 2006: After successful surgery on June 8, Kawthir left C.S. Mott Children's Hospital on Monday, June 12 to recuperate further at her host family's home. She is scheduled for a follow-up visit at the Congenital Heart Center clinic later this month, and will then return to Iraq with her mother.

ANN ARBOR, MI – It’s a long way from Baghdad, Iraq to Ann Arbor, Mich.; 6,300 miles to be exact. But seven-year-old Kawthir A*. and her mother Fatima A*. are making the long trip with one goal in mind: to make Kawthar’s heart better.

Heal the Children LogoOn Monday, May 29 they will arrive at Detroit Metro Airport, and on Thursday, June 8, Kawthir will undergo surgery to repair life-threatening birth defects within her heart. The operation, which will be performed by a team from the Michigan Congenital Heart Center at the U-M C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, will help keep her heart from failing and put her on the path toward a normal life.

To get her to this point took the work of literally dozens of military officials and civilians working in Iraq, Kuwait and Michigan — all of them working to help a little girl from south of Baghdad who has a hole in her heart and a love for computers and dolls.

Her trip is being sponsored by Healing the Children, a national charity that brings children from less-developed countries to receive first-class medical and surgical care at American hospitals while staying with American host families. The U-M Health System and doctors are donating the cost of her care under the UMHS charity-care policy.

Kawthir is the third Iraqi patient brought to the U.S. by Healing the Children since the beginning of the war in 2003, and the fourth from any charity program to be treated at the U-M Health System since that time. This month, two Iraqi children received eye, prosthetic and bladder care at U-M, while a teenage girl with serious burn injuries was treated at U-M in 2003. Another Iraqi child with a heart defect has been accepted for care at U-M, but travel arrangements are still being made.

“It has taken an incredible amount of effort and coordination to bring this child to us, and I’m confident we will be able to help her achieve normal heart function and health,” says Richard Ohye, M.D., the pediatric heart surgeon who will lead the surgical team on Thursday. “Her condition might have been repaired earlier if she had been born in America, but it is still at the stage where surgery should be curative.”

Richard Ohye, MDOhye, an assistant professor of surgery who operates on hundreds of children’s hearts each year, explains that Kawthar’s condition is caused in part by a hole in the muscular wall that separates the two sides of the heart (ventricular septal defect), as well as an abnormal band of tissue that divides one of her heart’s pumping chambers into two (double-chambered right ventricle). But her most serious problem is with her aortic valve, which regulates the flow of blood from the heart to body - it is leaking, allowing backward flow from her aorta back into her heart.

Kawthir’s combination of congenital heart conditions is rare, but can be treated successfully by an experienced team, Ohye says.

The Michigan Congenital Heart Center is considered one of the world’s leading centers for children’s heart care, and has its own 16-bed inpatient unit at Mott Hospital for the hundreds of patients who undergo surgery and procedures each year.

In addition to Ohye, Kawthir will be cared for by U-M pediatric cardiologists, specialized nursing staff, social workers and technicians. She will have an outpatient clinic visit the day before surgery, including advanced testing.

The U-M team is just one part of the team that is making Kawthir’s journey possible. The others include:

  • Kay Ghachem, a Rotary Club member in Chicago who first told Healing the Children about Kawthir’s situation and that of five other children, two of whom have already been treated in Cleveland and Cincinnati.
  • The National Iraqi Assistance Center, a Baghdad facility founded in 2004 where doctors from Iraq, together with representatives from U.S. and other Coalition military forces serving in Iraq, operate a “clearing house” for children who need medical assistance outside the country. Children can be referred by their own doctors, their families, or by U.S. soldiers who bring them there from operations throughout the country. The IAC receives inquiries about dozens of children each week, some of which require care not yet available in Iraq. IAC helps arrange for travel from Baghdad to Kuwait City, which acts as the staging area to transport children to the U.S.
  • The Humanitarian Operations Center in Kuwait City, which is a joint operation of the Kuwait government and the U.S. military. The center handles the logistics of getting passports, visas, and travel reservations for children like Kawthar.
  • The Healing the Children Michigan-Ohio chapter in Grand Rapids, Mich., directed by Helen Salan. The organization pays for the travel from Kuwait to Michigan, and works with airline employees who volunteer to help shepherd children and occasional parents from their home countries to the U.S. Healing the Children also arranges for a host family, translators and other support while the child is in the United States.
  • Kawthir’s host family, John and Tammy Houle have hosted 13 other children through Healing the Children.

For more on the Michigan Congenital Heart Center, which is part of the U-M Cardiovascular Center, visit

For more on the Michigan-Ohio chapter of Healing the Children, and how to support the cost of transporting and caring for children like Kawthar, visit

* The last names of Kawthir and her mother are being withheld on the advice of the Coalition forces in Iraq.

Written by Kara Gavin

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