For Iraqi girl recovering from bullet wound to the skull, Maine hospital was a lifesaver

Posted Nov. 29, 2011, at 3:35 p.m.
Noora Afif Abdulhameed with her father, Afif Abdulhameed Otaiwi.
Susi Eggenberger
Noora Afif Abdulhameed with her father, Afif Abdulhameed Otaiwi.

PORTLAND, Maine — Noora Afif Abdulhameed sat at a table at the Ronald McDonald House on Friday, shyly explaining that she felt well after the latest surgery to repair damage to her skull by a U.S. sniper’s bullet in Iraq.

Noora, 10, returned to Maine last week for the third time since 2008 for an operation at Maine Medical Center to cover a bald spot on the back of her head. The third-grader has endured numerous surgeries since the 2006 shooting, which shattered her skull and left her in a coma.

Last Wednesday, Dr. John Attwood, a South Portland plastic surgeon, placed balloons under Noora’s scalp to stretch the skin, which will later be used to cover the bare spot. Noora expects to spend about nine weeks in Maine, followed by two trips to New York for hair transplants that should mark the final steps in her recovery.

Though small bullet fragments remain embedded in her brain, Noora has suffered no cognitive damage from her injuries.

Her head wrapped in layers of white bandages, Noora grinned as Susi Eggenberger, an Arundel woman who has arranged her treatment in Maine, let it slip that Noora has developed a crush on her doctor. Noora also wants to become a physician herself.

“Because I want to help people,” she said.

Sitting next to her, Noora’s father, Afif Abdulhameed Otaiwi, nudged the conversation in a more serious direction, urging his daughter to explain how her injury has helped her to understand the need to help others. Although doctors in Iraq saved Noora’s life, Otaiwi said he witnessed as many as 10 children at the same hospital who were hurt or killed each day.

“Noora is one of them. She is lucky girl,” he said. “I saw in the hospital many kids who were injured from explosions or bombs.”

Noora, her eyelids drooping with fatigue, a side effect of her medications, began blowing bubbles from the little pumpkin-shaped bottle she’d been clutching as her father described the substandard treatment the Iraqi children received.

“They die,” he said.

In 2010, at least 194 children were killed and another 232 were wounded in Iraq, according to data cited by UNICEF, which includes the recruitment of children as soldiers, killing and maiming, and attacks on schools and hospitals. Official figures from the Iraqi government show 134 deaths and 590 children wounded in the first nine months of 2010, according to UNICEF.

So far this year, the Iraq Body Count, a nonprofit group that tallies casualties, has recorded more than 3,500 violent civilian deaths in the country, both children and adults.

Noora, then 5, was shot as she and her family drove home from a gathering in their hometown of Hit, a small city northwest of Ramadi, on Oct. 23, 2006. One bullet grazed her father’s left ear, while the second hit Noora, seated in the back with her three siblings.

“My son told me, ‘Noora has died,’” Otaiwi said. “My wife, she took Noora, she not move.”

Doctors in Iraq managed to save her, but efforts to repair her skull left Noora vulnerable to further injury or death.

“They told me Noora is in danger if she slip,” Otaiwi said.

For more than six months, Noora was missing a section of skull that her doctors removed and covered with a skin graft from her legs.

“At night, we put Noora between me and my wife to not hit her head,” Otaiwi said. He clasped his forearm, demonstrating where he tied one of Noora’s arms to his and the other to his wife’s to keep Noora from scratching the delicate area during the night.

Doctors in Maine used prosthetic material to repair Noora’s skull during previous visits, and she has since undergone numerous cosmetic procedures. Noora sometimes looks in the mirror and wonders why she doesn’t have normal hair, said Otaiwi, a history teacher. At school, she has been teased.

Here in Maine, Noora’s looking forward to visiting with friends she met on previous trips and plans to to go snowmobiling and sledding, and attend a performance of “The Snow Queen” at The Portland Stage Company. As the weeks go by, she’ll keep in touch by Skype with her family, including three-year-old Somaya, a sister who was born in Iraq during Noora and her father’s first trip to Maine.

Precocious Somaya packed up a bag and was ready to tag along for the 8,000-mile trip from Iraq to Portland, Otaiwi said.

“She said, ‘I’m going with my dad and my sister,’” he said, breaking into a smile.

The trips to the U.S. are expensive, but have been made possible through fundraising efforts and donations.The airfare alone totaled $3,600 for this trip, said Eggenberger, who has collected grants and contributions for the family along with her husband, Doug Rogers. Maine Medical Center and all of Noora’s doctors have donated their services.

Otaiwi stressed his gratitude to Noora’s benefactors.

“I want to thank so much those people,” he said.

To make a donation to help cover travel and medical expenses, send a check made out to Noora Abdulhameed to KeyBank, 1 Monument Square, Portland 04101, attention Noora Abdulhameed Relief Fund.

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