Doctors grant child’s wish

Surgery restores Iranian 4-year-old’s right eye, nose

(Originally published in the Press & Sun-Bulletin, July 23, 2003)

By Wasim Ahmad
Press & Sun-Bulletin

Mohammad Karime played with his blocks Monday at the Danielle House in Binghamton. When he wanted to see them better, he brought them closer to his left eye for examination.

And when he drew on a board, he would turn his face to the right, lining up the surface with his left eye because he has no vision to the right.

Born in Iran without a right eye and the right portion of his nose, Mohammad, 4, never realized there was anything wrong with him — until recently.

“He’s a perfectly normal child,” said his mother, Leila Ahmadi, through an interpreter. “But as he grew older, he realized people were staring.”

Mohammad and his mother have been waiting for a long time for a doctor to perform facial reconstruction. Now, they have finally gotten their wish. They traveled more than 6,000 miles from Mashhad, Iran, to Binghamton, courtesy of the Albany chapter of Gift of Life.

They were referred to the organization by Dr. Mohammad Rad, a maxillofacial surgeon in Amsterdam, N.Y., and a friend of Mohammad’s family. The operation was originally scheduled to be done in Rochester, but before it could be done, the doctor moved to Pittsburgh. After searching around, Rad found Dr. Lawrence Kerr, a plastic surgeon with United Health Services in Binghamton, and neurosurgeon Dr. Saeed Bajwa.

The surgery on the little boy with curly brown hair began Tuesday.

“It’s not going to be an instantaneous cure,” Kerr said. “It’s a lifelong process. He’ll never be perfect, but we’ll be getting him as normal as he can be.”

Before the surgery, Mohammad was sitting on a stretcher, wearing a surgical cap and a hospital gown that seemed just a little too big for him. He was playing with two stuffed animals and a latex glove that had been inflated to form a balloon, seemingly unaware that he was about to undergo something big.

“He has been asking, ‘When am I getting an operation, when am I getting an operation?’ just like it’s a toy,” Rad said. “He doesn’t know what an operation is.”

The six-hour surgery that was performed Tuesday at Wilson Memorial Regional Medical Center is called distraction osteogenesis. During the procedure, the doctors break apart the bones around Mohammad’s right eye, and then hold them in the correct position with a halo-like device with knobs for adjustments, Kerr said.
The adjustments will spread the bones one millimeter a day, and new bone will grow in the gap, forming an orbit for a glass eye. Mohammad will have to wear the device for about six weeks after his surgery.

In addition to giving Mohammad a normal-looking eye, doctors straightened his jaw, which was crooked. He will be back in the country in about six months to a year so doctors can work on creating another nostril for him, Rad said.

Mohammad was recovering Tuesday night. He had a tube down his throat to help with his breathing, but when asked if he was OK, he nodded a yes to doctors, Kerr said.

He’ll spend the next few days in the Intensive Care Unit at Wilson, and another week in Binghamton while he recovers. After that, it’s back to Amsterdam to stay with Rad, and then back to Iran.

Doctors said he was in stable condition and “looking good.” Any scars will be hidden by his hair line, Rad and Kerr said. He beat the estimated one percent chance of death, Kerr said.

The surgery, which costs about $100,000, is being performed for free by the doctors, and the hospital stay and other fees fall under charity care, United Health Service spokesman Jon Tooley said. Gift of Life covers the family’s travel costs, and stipends for food and other expenses, and Fred Carvin, past district governor of Rotary International District 7190, who has been affiliated with the Albany Gift of Life since it started in 1992.

Even if the family had sold everything they had, it would probably amount to a little over $10,000, Rad said — solid middle class for Iran, but not enough to pay for the surgery. The Danielle House is providing Ahmadi with a place to stay while her son is recovering from the surgery.

The Gift of Life program has about 50 chapters worldwide and was started by Rotary International members on Long Island in the 1970s. Its purpose is to help poor and needy children throughout the world get the surgery they need to live as normal a life as possible, Carvin said. They work by providing the records of the child to a doctor, in hopes they will pick it up and perform the surgery for free, as in the case of Mohammad.

“This is a long-lasting wish for any parent to have normal children,” Ahmadi said. “I am extremely excited and happy, and I’m hoping to give him a normal life.”

While Mohammad will have a halo on his head, that won’t stop him from soaking up some of the American culture while he is here. He’s been doing much of what normal kids do in the United States. One of his new hobbies is watching Nickelodeon. He has picked up a few English words and loves playing video games with Rad’s 5-year-old son. Already his benefactors are planning a shopping trip for Mohammad once he is out of the hospital, Rad said.

For now, though, Ahmadi is not thinking about where she will take her son sightseeing. The ear-to-ear smile on her face says it all. After a long day of waiting, with no sleep the night before, she’s relieved.

“Finally,” Ahmadi said, “I can have a peaceful mind now.”

© 2003 Press & Sun-Bulletin, Binghamton, N.Y.