Sailors save young girl's life

1 Dec 2006 | Lance Cpl. Geoffrey P. Ingersoll 1st Marine Logistics Group

The nine-(and-a-half)-year-old Iraqi girl would have died without their help.

Riyam Shihan's cousin was trying to close a heavy, metal door, at a home in Habbaniyah when it became unhinged and fell on Riyam, crushing her skull.  The bone was fractured and she was bleeding profusely.  With each passing minute, rapidly building pressure within her brain was causing more damage.

When she arrived at TQ Surgical, her condition deteriorated quickly.  Fearing the worst, doctors and corpsmen "launched into action," said Lt. Cmdr. Pamela C. Harvey, 39 from Muscatine, Iowa and a doctor with TQ Surgical, 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward).

They medicated her intravenously and inserted a breathing tube.  But because of the injury to her brain, she had lost the ability to clot blood.  Surgeons sent out a 'walk-in' blood bank message.  Camp Taqaddum responded immediately with almost two dozen donors.

With more blood, Riyam was able to stabilize, but because they lacked a specialized neurosurgeon in TQ, surgeons were forced to send her to a different hospital.  In the early hours of October 14th, an unconscious Riyam Shihan was flown to a higher level hospital.  TQ Surgical's staff doubted she would survive the required surgery, much less walk and talk again.

So when Riyam walked back into the hospital a month later and asked for strawberry bubble gum, surgeons and corpsmen were amazed.

"I couldn't believe it," said Cmdr. Tracy R. Bilski, a trauma surgeon for TQ Surgical.  Upon seeing the girl's outcome, Bilski, 38 from Bellmawr, N.J. burst into tears of shock and joy.

"Back in the states, with an injury like this, the patient would be operated on in forty-five minutes," said Cmdr. Theodore D. Edson, a 39-year-old TQ surgeon from Lexington, Mass.  Because bad weather had been blocking flights out of Taqaddum the night of her injury, Riyam hadn't gotten her operation until almost 6 hours after the injury took place.

"That girl must be someone really special," said Edson.

Coalition forces found out later that she is a very special girl.  She is the grand daughter of a sheik, or tribal leader, in Habbaniyah.

"The Iraqi people of Habbaniyah hear what the coalition forces have done to save my grand daughter, and they cry.  They are very grateful and you have gained them to your side," said Riyam's grandfather, 70-year-old Aved Shihan Ghathaib.

Since the girl was saved, a ripple effect has taken place, and the Iraqi citizens of Habbaniyah have become increasingly supportive of Coalition forces in the area.

"(The sheik) is in charge of six thousand people, and all of them know this story, and soon all of their friends will know this story," said Hameed Aftat Shihan, a chief security officer.  Riyam's grandfather has also informed many other sheiks, who will probably inform their people, he added.

"Saving this girl's life," said Hameed, "was like saving all of Iraq."

But Riyam's fight for life is far from over.  With a piece of her skull incubating inside her stomach, Riyam currently lives with only a thin layer of soft tissue to protect that part of her brain.  Riyam is forced to wear a helmet now when she plays with her friends. 

Another problem is that Riyam is still growing.  Without her skull intact during her growth, she could face problems associated with irregular brain growth, such as a decrease in motor function capability and speech. 

Within the next six months, she will need a follow up operation to replace the missing piece of her skull.  It is a delicate operation that, due to the rebuilding of Iraq's infrastructure, will be almost impossible to provide in her home nation.

The efforts of coalition forces have bought her more time, but without this operation, Riyam's future still remains stormy.
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1st Marine Logistics Group