9-year-old Rawan, who lost an arm to shrapnel, gets a loving home and medical care here
Mark Curnutte reports:
A little more than a year ago, as shells exploded around her house in Damascus, Rawan Mubarak ran with her family for shelter in another house – not an uncommon escape plan for civilians trapped in Syria’s civil war.
Shrapnel flew from a shell and tore into Rawan’s torso and right arm. When she awoke days later in a local hospital, parts of her intestines and stomach had been removed. And her arm was gone.
“I didn’t see it,” she said in Arabic. “I cried. I got sad.”
In the past year, though, Rawan completed third grade and relearned how to write, color, shower and – yes – even send text messages and shoot baskets left-handed.
Now the 9-year-old girl is on the verge of receiving a prosthetic right arm thanks to several individuals and organizations in Greater Cincinnati.
Rawan is the first child injured in the Syrian civil war brought to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center by the new local chapter of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. It is a self-described non-political, non-religious nonprofit, founded 20 years ago in Kent, Ohio, that provides expert surgery and humanitarian aid to children and families in the Middle East – primarily those from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Its other offices are in Saida, Lebanon, and the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the central West Bank.
Other Palestine Fund children are brought free of charge to other U.S. cities for donated medical care. The first Cincinnati chapter child, a boy, 1, is at Children’s for esophageal reconstruction. An 11-year-old boy is coming from the disputed lands for treatment of severe burns. The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund covers all of a child’s expenses. Doctors and the prosthetic company here are donating goods and services.
More children are expected to come from Syria. Its civil war, which started in March 2011 when that nation’s Arab Spring revolts turned bloody, has led to the deaths of more than 80,000 people, some 500 of them children, according to the United Nations. An estimated 260,000 Syrian refugees, more than half of them children, are in camps in Lebanon. The Palestine Children’s group sends medical missions to those camps.
Closer to home, the focus today is on helping one girl return as whole as possible.
“We have an incredibly generous host family for Rawan,” said Lena Shawwa, a banker who is the local chapter’s treasurer. “We want the experience to be positive for the child in all ways.”
The local chapter has nine volunteer board members and 20 additional volunteers who work directly with visiting children to provide transportation to medical appointments or take them for day outings if the host family is not available.
International patients and pediatric war wounds are not new for doctors at Cincinnati Children’s. In the past 20 years, patients from Bosnia, Croatia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Haiti are among those who’ve received care at Children’s.
Dr. Charles Mehlman, head of Children’s Limb Reconstruction Clinic, on will see Rawan today for an appointment – her first here. Specialists at JF Rowley Prosthetic and Orthotic Laboratory, Corryville, have worked with Rawan’s X-rays and photographs to build her custom prosthetic arm, which will be delivered June 19. Then physical and occupation therapists will help Rawan learn how to use her new arm.
“We’d just like to provide her with something that is useful,” said Christine Geeding, clinical director at JL Rowley, which specializes in pediatrics.
Before then, at Children’s, Mehlman’s job is to ensure that Rawan’s residual arm, which was amputated near the shoulder, “has no troublesome bone spurs,” he said. If necessary, doctors will operate.
A child’s bones are encased by a material known as periosteum, which Mehlman compares to bark on a tree. “It is biologically active in children and can cause those spurs, but it’s inconsequential in adults,” he said. “We want to make sure the bone is smooth for the most comfortable and friendliest fit.”
The fit with her host family, that of Saleh Falah and his wife, Malak Falah, of West Chester, has been a good one. Rawan arrived on a flight from Beirut on May 25. An uncle had driven her from Syria into neighboring Lebanon.
“Of course, I was a little scared,” Rawan said of the flight to the United States without her mother. Malak Falah sat beside her in the family’s living room and interpreted her comments from Arabic to English.
Rawan, who had not used an iPhone prior to arriving, sent and received text messages from her mother in Damascus during the interview. She held the device in the palm of her left hand and typed smoothly with her thumb. The girl also uses Skype to communicate with her family, which is how Malak Falah first communicated with Rawan while she was still in Syria.
“I like it here better than in Syria,” Rawan said.
Malak Falah, whose adult daughter Tasneem Falah, is patient affairs coordinator for the Cincinnati chapter of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, has helped Rawan to understand what her new arm will and won’t be.
“I told her the new arm will be to help her, but it will not be a regular arm,” Malak said. “We are going to ask all of our questions at our first appointment.”
Back home in Damascus, Rawan said she once watched a movie with her older brother, now 13, in which a man had two artificial legs.
Adam Falah, 13, has served as a substitute big brother for Rawan. She likes to volley an inflated beach ball in the back yard and shoot baskets with him. He lowered the rim for her on a recent afternoon and lifted her by the underarms so she could dunk. She can make shots one-handed. After swishing one, she slapped Adam a high-five.
“Universal language,” said Adam, who also speaks Arabic.
Rawan has taken to chocolate milk and French fries but prefers traditional Middle Eastern cooking. She reads children’s books written in Arabic that Malak Falah had used with her own children.
Rawan will be here for a few weeks after receiving her prosthetic arm. An Arabic-speaking psychologist has been available if she needed counseling.
“She is a strong girl, much better than we’d expected,” Malak said of Rawan. “This child is much stronger than I think we would be in such a situation. The hardest part of this will be sending her back.”
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