By Senior Master Sgt. Charles Ramey, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 1, 2007 - Even though she's surrounded by war, Dalal is not much different from other children her age. She likes jump-rope and Cinderella and enjoys reading and drawing. Her favorite classes are religion and language, and she recently completed second grade -- earning perfect marks in all her studies. But, unlike many of her peers, the 8-year-old Iraqi girl also has fought a life-threatening battle from within since birth. Due to the efforts of a U.S. Special Forces medic and an Army civil affairs noncommissioned officer, all of that changed recently, and Dalal was granted a new lease on life.
Dalal received an operation in Amman, Jordan, July 23 to correct a heart defect known as "tetralogy of Fallot." The congenital disease causes a decreased flow of blood to the lungs, as well as mixing of blood from separate chambers of the heart. Left unattended, Dalal's prognosis could have been death around the time she hit puberty.
"The surgery went smoothly and took approximately three hours to complete," pediatric cardiologist Dr. Khaled Salaymeh said shortly after the operation. "We had to close a hole in one area of her heart and patch and enlarge another area. She was fully awake shortly after the surgery and doing excellent."
Dalal's journey to the operating room began in eastern Iraq several months ago.
"The previous (Special Forces) team here discovered her," said Army Staff Sgt. Joe Murtaugh, a U.S. Special Forces medical sergeant assigned to Iraq's Anbar province.
"Her father had an electrocardiogram from when she was 3 years old diagnosing her with the condition. Since so much time had passed, they had him take her to where she could get another test, and the diagnosis came back the same," Murtaugh said.
While reviewing Dalal's medical records, Murtaugh found an e-mail address for the International Organization of Migration in Jordan and contacted them for assistance.
"They directed us to several contacts, but the most important was (Army Staff Sgt. Marikay Satryano). She took care of all the logistical details in Jordan and even arranged for three organizations to cover the $8,000 cost of Dalal's surgery," Murtaugh said.
A civil affairs specialist assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Satryano created a program that matches charities and corporations to individual Iraqi children's cases. Over the past two years, she has arranged for 61 children to receive lifesaving cardiac surgery either in Amman or the United States. In Dalal's case, Satryano coordinated with the Environmental Chemical Corporation to arrange a free flight from Baghdad to Jordan. She also scheduled everything with the hospital in Amman and the free services of a Jordanian dentist who provided some necessary dental care.
"Helping Dalal has been a group effort," Satryano said. "Three organizations, 'Gift of Life New Jersey,' 'Gift of Life International,' and 'Our Children International USA' split the cost for Dalal's surgery. The 'International Organization of Migration Mission' is also assisting by covering room and board for Dalal's father during their stay in Jordan."
U.S. special operations forces played a major role in ensuring Dalal and her father could make the trip to Jordan.
"We assisted them in getting the new Iraqi G-series passports to travel out of the country," Murtaugh said. "Our special operations task unit coordinated a flight from their hometown to Al Asad (Air Base), and we worked with the Combined Joint Special Operations Air Command to fly them from Al Asad to Baghdad. Another team member and I escorted the family to Baghdad, and we stayed with them until they departed to ensure there were no problems. Everyone was extremely helpful and provided us with excellent support throughout."
While the family members were waiting on passports to make the journey, Murtaugh regularly kept in contact with them and even put together a slide show to bring Dalal's plight to the attention of folks back home. Inspired by his dedication, friends, family and fellow servicemembers took the initiative to contact Gift of Life International to make a donation in her name. "They are still receiving donations and, at last count the total was over $1,000," Murtaugh said. "I am very happy we were able to assist Dalal. She's a sweetheart, and without our help I'm convinced her condition would be fatal."
"We appreciate that they (the Americans) care about us," Dalal's father, whose name was withheld to protect his identity, said through an interpreter. "I know you are here doing another job, and I am thankful for all you do. This is an unforgettable thing what you are doing for my family, and we cannot thank you enough for your help."
Now that Dalal starts the day with health and the promise of a future, she was asked what she wants to be when she grows up. Without skipping a beat, her brown eyes warmly envision her future: "A doctor! And I'd treat everyone for free."
"The child we can't help is the one we don't know about," Satryano said. "Typically, cases of humanitarian assistance go to the National Iraqi Assistance Center, which is staffed by Iraqi citizens and coalition forces. Not all parents (such as in the case of Dalal) can easily gain access to Baghdad for such services, but there are many ways to still help them. It takes dedication, total teamwork, trust and faith, but together we can give more Iraqi children in need a chance at a healthy life."
(Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Charles Ramey is assigned to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Arabian Peninsula.)