News

1st FSSG surgical company loses its heart to Iraqi girl

13 Jun 2004 | Sgt. Matt Epright

Sailors and Marines at Alpha Surgical Company are investigating a robbery that occurred here sometime between May 14-16, 2004. A 10-year-old Iraqi girl is the prime suspect in the theft - of everyone's hearts.

Asma Muhana's own heart is broken.  One of her only hopes of repair lies with the 1st Force Service Support Group's battlefield medical unit.

Ever since Asma was born and diagnosed with a hole in the upper chamber of her heart and several heart valve defects, her father, Karaim, searched for a doctor to perform the necessary surgery. With Iraq's diminished medical infrastructure, receiving the heart operation wasn't possible.

While the conditions do not usually affect her day-to-day health when young, over time the defect can severely degrade heart and lung functions and possibly lead to death.

Luckily, Karaim worked on Camp Al Asad and word of his daughter's ailment spread, and people asked if she could be seen. Fortunately, the doctors were in.

Navy doctors examined her and determined that she needed surgery to fix the defect. While Alpha Surgical personnel could not perform the surgery here, they did start the process to send Asma to a U.S. hospital for treatment.

Asma returned a few days later, dreadfully sick with pneumonia.

"She didn't eat. She could hardly breathe," said Emma Bahbahani, a 36-year-old local translator who stayed with Asma during her bout with the illness.

The hospital staff leapt into action, performing all the necessary procedures to heal Asma.

Right from the beginning, love for the dark-eyed girl caused them to go to extraordinary lengths to not only care for her physical condition, but for her happiness as well.

"When she came in she was really shy," said Ensign Kathryn R. Foster, a nurse and 23-year-old native of Lake Oswego, Ore.

Her shyness simply motivated medical personnel to try harder.

"She was spoiled while she was here," said 1st Lt. Catalina E. Kessler, Alpha's executive officer and the senior Marine with the company.

One dental technician gave Asma several toothbrushes, for her and her siblings and taught Asma how to brush her teeth. She also told the girl about the tooth fairy.

"As I was brushing, one of her baby teeth fell out," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Rachael A. Stirling, a 21-year-old native of San Mateo, Calif.

No one in the hospital was immune to the effects of the small, dark-haired girl's charm. Sailors and Marines alike visited Asma, some bringing gifts and candy, some entertaining her with movies and floor shows.

"We just sang and danced and jumped around and made fools of ourselves," said Lance Cpl. Mariko A. Harman, the company's supply clerk.

Harman, a 19-year-old Seattle native, even painted Asma's fingernails and toenails while they watched a Disney movie.

"Once she saw that we honestly cared, she really opened up," said Ensign Karen M. Lovecchio one of the company's nurses and a 25-year-old native of Vineland, N.J., who gave her own teddy bear to Asma the first night she was there.

Most of the hospital crew feels the extra efforts helped speed Asma's recovery. Though, some were shy about having a part in it.

Some of Alpha's 23 Marines, who support the company as drivers, engineers and computer technicians, snuck in during the night because they were worried about anyone questioning their "tough Marine image," joked Cmdr. Rebecca V. Sparks, Alpha's commanding officer.

Taking care of children like Asma is not the norm for Alpha.

"Our focus is always going to be Marines, but when we're slow, it's nice to treat children," said Foster. "We wish we could bring more children in."

Though the Marines and sailors of Alpha hated to see Asma go, she had overcome her pneumonia and was ready to leave.

"It was not a final goodbye," said Sparks, since Asma would be back in five days for a check-up. "I think it was more of a happy day for us, as we all had such a sense of gratification that we each had some part, whether medical, emotional or material, in seeing this child recover."


Asma is currently at home awaiting a flight to take her to a U.S. hospital for her heart surgery, said 27-year-old Kesler, a Calexico, Calif., native.

She and her father represent "the true face of the Iraqi people," said Sparks, a 48-year-old native of Elizabeth City, N.C. She added that helping individuals like them will help Americans be accepted by the Iraqi people "one family at a time."

"It will be a long process, but it will be worth it, whatever the cost," she said.
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