Iraqi children receive a second chance

The International Children’s Heart Foundation (ICHF), an American-based charity which trains Iraqi surgeons to perform life-saving open-heart surgery on sick children, is on its fifth mission, this time in the southern city of Nassriyah, Iraq.

The ICHF works in cooperation with Iraqi children’s charity, Living Light International aims to train local surgeons and nursing staff.

The charity recently sent a team of 20 cardiologists on its new mission to help Iraqi doctors operate on children in desperate need of life saving surgeries.

Dr. Stacy Marr from the ICHF says the team has operated on around 80 children, most of whom would have died without surgical intervention.

"The reason we come to Iraq is to teach local teams, so the charity works to do what is called programme building in developing world countries, where we come in with whole teams to teach every member how to look after children," explains Dr Marr. "The idea behind the charity is each country is on a five year program by the end of which they will be independently managing children of all ages with complex and simple heart disease," she added.

Dr. Marr said the objective is to train and develop the performance of local surgeons so that they can conduct children’s heart surgery by themselves.

"The range of operations we’re doing this time, we’re focusing on operations that the local surgeons can do themselves, so the idea is that they do 70 to 80 percent of the surgeries by themselves with some support, and then 20 percent of the surgery is done by foreign surgeons. So currently they are doing surgeries that are quite complex independently,” she said.

The Nassriyah Heart Centre was established in 2007 and is one of the largest specialized centers in Iraq. The centre has three floors equipped with four operating theatres, 15 intensive care beds and 90 general beds.

Due to the inter-family marriages and decades of war as well as malnutrition, an estimated 6,000 Iraqi children need heart surgery.

"Children's heart surgery is one of the most complex and difficult operations which is not regularly done in many heart centres around the world,” said Dr. Ahmed Ghani, who is a member of Living Light.

He added that the ICHF program serves many patients who are not able to receive treatment outside Iraq as well as provides invaluable training opportunities to local surgeons.

"This program provides a huge opportunity for the children, especially for families with limited incomes. It provides an opportunity to do operations inside Iraq. This program is very useful because it aims to achieve multiple benefits, including treating children and training the local staff."

Although public health care is free in Iraq, many patients with financial means prefer seek private care, as public facilities lack certain necessities. This is especially true in rural and remote areas where health care is severely limited.

Sa'ad al-Yabe’s grandson was born with multiple holes in his heart and hopes the ICHF team can save the little boy who is in urgent need of surgery.

“After I heard from a friend about the presence of an American team in Nassriyah, I felt compelled to come here because my grandson suffers from three holes in his heart and his treatment is very difficult and expensive. They said that I should take him outside Iraq. I hope that the team will be able to look after his case, and other children’s too because I saw many cases and many children, I hope that they will be able to heal this child," Sa'ad al-Yabes said.

In the past, Iraq was known to have one of the best health care systems in the Middle East but decades of war and international sanctions have demolished the country’s health care system.

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