Semper Angels save Iraqi girl

12 May 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

Quick action, warm hearts, and a $1.75 worth of medical supplies recently saved a two-year-old Iraqi girl from near death at the base headquarters for the I Marine Expeditionary Force.

"I think I am leaving you now," said tiny Ayat Ali Ghazy, to her aunt as she was being carried to the front gate of the U.S. Marine base camp here.

With tears in her eyes, her aunt, Jinan Ady told Ayat that where the little girl was going, she would not be able to follow.

"The little angel must have known she was dying," said Navy Commander Diane Pickel Plappert, a nurse assigned to the Forward Resuscitation Surgical System 3.  "It was a miracle that they brought her. God must have had tears when he saw this sick little girl."

That morning, the frantic father had just been sent away from a local hospital.  Most of little Ayat's short life had been spent with doctors and in hospitals. She was born, missing part of her diaphragm. This caused some of her organs to shift around and kept her from being able to digest food.

After the girl arrived at the local hospital suffering from dehydration, doctors had given up hope of helping her.

"I had told her that we were going home so she could go to sleep," said Ady, through an interpreter. "I did not know what else we could do."

On his way home with his daughter, Ayat's father, Ali Ghazy made a final decision.

"Let us try to get her to where the Americans are," said the proud father through and interpreter.  "This is our last chance."

Although Ghazy said he was confident that Americans would save his daughter, the Marines at the front gate were uncertain of his pleas for help. A short distance away, Army Sgt. Darren A Cockerham, Florida National Guard forward observer assigned to the I MEF, noticed all the commotion.  He along with translator from the Free Iraqi Forces decided to help. 

The Iraqi translator told Cockerham and the Marine guards that the man's daughter was sick and the Americans were his last hope. As seconds ticked away, Cockerham could read the fear on the young father's face.

A trained civilian emergency medical technician, Cockerham knew what had to be done.

"The little girl was suffering from severe dehydration and I knew that if something was not done fast she was going to die," Cockerham said.

While examining her, Cockerham noticed several attempts at starting intravenous lines had failed already.  However, everything went from bad to worse when the father showed him Ayat's X-rays.
"The anatomy was all wrong," said Cockerham.  "The heart was on the left side." 

Getting on the radio, Cockerham gave the surgeons a detailed report.  They came down immediately and were given permission from the I MEF surgeon to go ahead and take care of the little girl.

"When I first saw her she was almost lifeless," said Navy Cmdr. Miguel A. Cubauo, the officer in charge of the Forward Resuscitation Surgical System 3.  "I have been a physician since 1987 and I have never seen a child as dehydrated as she was."

Cockerham started the first IV, and she responded right away.  The surgeons knew she had a chance.

"A $ 1.75 worth of medical supplies and some personal care was all it took to save her life," said Cubauo, a native of Puerto Rico who is stationed at a naval air station in Jacksonville, Fla.  "If there was any reason worth being here it was taking care of her."

During the night, the medics took turns staying up with the little patient.  All night long she fought to stay alive.  Her father and aunt tried to help the medics with the vigil but stress and fatigue overcame them. In Iraq, families are required to handle all personal patient care in the hospital.

"She realized that her niece was in good hands," Pickel Plappert said.  "The aunt was exhausted and, before she fell asleep, I could tell by her face that she trusted us."

"I have never seen such good care ever," Ady said.  "This is not even a hospital, but they have been so good to us."

During the night while the corpsmen and nurses took turns taking care of little Ayat, the I Marine Expeditionary Force was working behind the scenes to ensure her recovery.  A routine surgery would save her life, Cubauo said.

That surgery was scheduled to take place at a nearby Army Combat Surgical Hospital that had the right tools and a pediatric surgeon.  

"Although all surgery is risky, this is a relatively simple operation," Cubauo said.  "Back in the states, this would not be a problem."

In less than 24 hours arrangements were made to transport Ayat, her father and aunt to the field hospital. 

"This was a team effort," said Cubauo.  "From the Marine guard who called us for help to the nurses who stayed up all night with the angel. It was all of us pulling together that saved her life."