The frail girl arrived at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan weighing scarcely 35 pounds, sluggish and prone to alarming episodes of bluish skin if she so much as walked briskly.
Basira Jan, born with a malformed heart that left her body starved of oxygen, faced a bleak future amid the country’s poverty — until Indiana National Guardsmen heard about her plight and vowed to help.
“I wanted to make a difference, to make a little piece of the world better because we were there,” said Indiana Guardsman Capt. Michael Roscoe, 33, a physician’s assistant who examined Basira last spring when her father brought her to Camp Phoenix, where American soldiers train the Afghan army.
That meeting set in motion a journey that took Basira to Indianapolis, where doctors would save the 6-year-old’s life.
Basira is one of about a dozen Afghan and Iraqi children in the past two years to travel to American cities such as Tampa, Albuquerque and Indianapolis for medical treatment unavailable in their homelands, said Lt. Col. Donald Cole, director of patient movement for the U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, Ill.
Getting an Afghan or Iraqi child to an American hospital is no easy task. Diplomatic and military hurdles must be crossed, stateside hospitals must be willing to perform surgery for free and Rotary Clubs and other groups enlisted to help.
Basira’s journey began with help from a local chapter of Gift of Life International Inc., a nonprofit that works through Rotary Clubs.
Chairman Rob Donno said the Great Neck, N.Y.-based group has arranged heart surgeries for more than 4,000 children from 60-plus nations since 1974. One of its goals in helping ailing children from developing countries is to promote world peace.
“The bottom line is, ‘If you help my child, my daughter or my son, you save their life, how could you be my enemy?”’ Donno said.
Doctors at Riley Hospital for Children agreed to donate their services, and Basira underwent corrective heart surgery in September that restored the normal movement of oxygen-enriched blood through her body.
Since then, she has transformed into a ball of energy, racing around wildly on a bike and leading her father, whom she once begged to carry her, on half-mile walks.
“She’s been riding her bike like a mad woman. She’s really doing quite good,” said Dr. Mark Turrentine, who performed Basira’s surgery.
Basira and her father, Ghulam Ghaus, 46, pass their days at a Ronald McDonald House set along a quiet, tree-lined street near the hospital.
Basira has overnighted several times with the family of Capt. Steve Fippen, one of the Guardsmen who helped arrange her trip to Indiana. Fippen’s 5-year-old daughter, Emily, has become fast friends with Basira. Despite the language barrier, they share a common love of dolls and video games.
Fippen said the Florida Guardsmen who replaced their Indiana counterparts this summer have been bringing food to Basira’s mother and seven siblings.
He’s working to get a wheelchair to send home with Basira for her 19-year-old sister, who was partially paralyzed in a fall and now must crawl about the drafty, two-room mud house they share in Afghanistan.
Ghaus said Indianapolis, with its modern buildings and green landscape, “looks like a paradise” compared with his village.
Not all happy endings
There, fields of rice and cotton sometimes conceal land mines left from the era of Soviet occupation. Ghaus worked for years as a mine-clearer, but he quit this spring after several co-workers died in explosions.
He said he’s grateful his daughter has been given a chance for a healthy life. He and Basira plan to return to Afghanistan by early December, after Basira undergoes a final checkup.
The soldiers and doctors who’ve reached out to Basira and others know there are no guaranteed happy endings.
Earlier this year, a 14-month-old Afghan boy also brought to Riley thanks to Indiana Guardsmen underwent surgery to correct a heart condition similar to Basira’s.
Qudrat Wardak’s transformation into a chubby, smiling child delighted Riley staff, who were devastated when he inexplicably died just two days after returning home in April.
Turrentine, who also performed Qudrat’s heart surgery, fears the impoverished conditions the boy returned to — an unheated home, lack of clean water, the threat of disease — somehow caused his death.
“We could fix his heart, but going back to those conditions, that was something we could not fix,” he said.