CAMP MEJID, Iraq --
On Thanksgiving Day, 2008, a small group of Marines, sailors and Iraqi soldiers traveled to the rural village of Harwan, Iraq, where they set up a makeshift medical bay to conduct medical services and screenings.
Throughout the day, U.S. and Iraqi corpsmen, in cooperation with village doctors, treated a parade of illnesses common to rural Iraq, such as intestinal parasites, chronic dehydration, malnutrition, and leishmaniasis, a common skin disease caused by the bites of certain sand fleas.
As the sun began to set, the last patient, a very small 5-year-old boy named Abdulrahman, was carried into the medical bay. Corpsmen examined the boy and found a severe skin condition affecting most of his body, against which the other illnesses of the day paled in comparison.
The boy’s infectious smile and good-natured resilience in the face of his painful and debilitating condition pierced the hearts of the corpsmen, and launched a quest to ease his suffering.
What began as a routine mission to win hearts and minds was the start of a four-month saga that spanned from the rural Iraqi village to Cincinnati, Ohio, and back to a clinic aboard the Iraqi Army’s Camp Mejid.
“We heard the doctors were coming to Harwan, and we drove there from Hit [the family’s hometown] so we could see the doctor,” said Arkan, Abdulrahman’s father. “The doctor saw our son, and we were happy that the doctor gave enough time to examine Abdulrahman and help us with his problem.”
The boy’s condition perplexed the American and Iraqi medical professionals, including Cmdr. Robert Gherman, battalion surgeon for 2nd battalion, 25th Marines, a reserve Naval officer who left a lucrative medical practice in the Washington, D.C., area to serve in Iraq.
To help diagnose Abdulrahman’s perplexing condition, Gherman reached out to medical specialists in the United States.
One of those professionals was Dr. Anne Lucky, a graduate of Yale University School of Medicine who specializes in pediatric dermatology.
“We sent photographs of the boy’s condition to medical centers in the U.S.,” said Gherman. “With Dr. Lucky’s help, Abdulrahman was diagnosed with congenital epidermolysis bullosa, or EB.”
EB is an extremely rare skin condition that, according to the World Health Organization, affects one out of every 5 million people worldwide.
People born with EB lack the “anchors” that hold the layers of their skin together, and as a consequence, any activity that rubs or causes pressure on the skin produces painful sores.
Abdulrahman’s form of EB covers most of his body, extending across his arms, legs, torso, and into his mouth and esophagus. The condition has been present since birth and has left Abdulrahman scarred and constantly covered in painful open sores and blisters.
Currently, there is no proven cure for EB, but those affected can be treated with constant bandaging of blister-prone areas and daily application of topical antibiotics and antiseptics to combat secondary infection.
Specialized EB medication is only carried by a select few centers in the U.S., and is nonexistent in many countries like Iraq.
Gherman’s call for help also reached officials at the University of Cincinnati hospital, who donated enough supplies to treat Abdulrahman’s affliction for approximately six months.
Abdulrahman and his parents traveled from their home in Hit, Iraq, to the medical center aboard the Iraqi Army’s Camp Majid on Feb.16, 2009, to once again see Gherman. This time, however, Gherman and his team were armed with a proper diagnosis and the supplies to help ease Abdulrahman’s suffering.
“We were relieved when we heard about the medication that the Marines got for our son,” said Arkan.
While Abdulrahman sat on his mother’s lap in Camp Majid’s clinic, holding a wrapped candy bar the doctors had given him and playing peek-a-boo with a Marine, Gherman and his corpsman, Petty Officer 2nd Class Tad Conklin, showed the family how to apply the special bandages, medication, and wraps donated by the University of Cincinnati.
“I am very happy to finally hear some good news for our son’s case after five years of suffering,” said the boy’s mother.
Gherman said their main goal was to mitigate infection caused by EB so Abdulrahman can do things that normal children do.
“I just want him to be able to go outside and play,” Gherman told the boy’s family through an interpretor. “He will never fully heal, but we can prevent major infection that would make him very sick.”
Abdulrahman’s family has a tough road ahead, so Gherman discussed his plan for the boy’s care after the 2nd battalion, 25th Marines completes their deployment and returns to the U.S.
“Our hope is that very soon the Iraqis will be able to use their own ministry of health and assets to treat people like Abdulrahman,” said Gherman. “Then, after we’re gone, he will still receive the medical attention he needs.”
The medical center at Camp Mejid, Iraq, receives new medical supplies from the Iraqi government about every three months, and two Iraqi doctors oversee medical operations there. As Iraq continues to evolve as a free and sovereign country, necessities like medical care become more readily available to its people each day.
After humbly accepting all the help the sailors and Iraqi medics could offer, the family fervently thanked them and began the journey back their home in Hit carrying the donated medical supplies and a new-found hope for their son’s future.