When one watches eight-year-old Alla Hassain play on her bed in the intensive care unit, it is hard to believe that this is the same girl who a month and-a-half ago was on the verge of death and required resuscitation after she stopped breathing.
Alla, whose name means "symbol" in Kurdish, traveled a long way before finally arriving at an Israeli hospital. Her trip originated in northern Iraq, on the Turkish border, via Jordan. Alla suffered from several heart defects – the kind that cause termination of pregnancy when identified in an Israeli fetus. In cases where the defects go undetected, babies are customarily operated on within he first month of their lives.
"She reached a stage where we say she exhausted her life expectancy," said Dr. Dudi Mishali, who manages the heart defect surgery win at Sheba Medical Center. "In other hospitals in the world, doctors apparently thought her lungs are in such state that they cannot be saved. I said that we have nothing to lose. She wouldn't have survived a month or even two weeks after reaching the hospital without surgery."
Alla's mother, Todi, is still concerned about her daughter. "When she was born, they immediately saw that something wasn't in order. Her lips and nails were blue, and she didn't breastfeed normally. Doctors at the hospital said she had many heart problems and that she won't survive beyond her first birthday."
Alla with her mother at the hospital (Photo: Ofer Amram)
Alla's family traveled to various Iraqi hospitals and also sent the child's medical documentation to Syria, Germany and Italy, yet because of citizenship and financial problems, they had to give up.
Alla's childhood was spent at home, in bed.
"I would take care of her as if she was a baby, and carry her everywhere," her mother said. "She couldn't go to school or play outside. She was in bed most of the time. I was scared to shower her, because she would get tired.
"On one of your visits to hospital, they proposed that I sign her up for treatment in Israel. I didn't agree because I had no faith in anyone and we suffered many disappointments, but Alla's uncle insisted," the mother says, adding she did not fear the trip to what is considered an enemy country.
"When I arrived here I was only concerned about Alla, because they said the surgery is complex and she could die. I knew nothing about the people here or about Israel. The big surprise for me was to see the doctors playing with and warmly treating all the children, regardless of who they are. I am very touched and delighted by this."
'It's amazing to see her smiling'
Following her surgery, Alla was kept in the intensive care unit for two and-a-half months. Many of the systems in her body were collapsing. Dr. Amir Vardi, a senior doctor at the ward, said: "She looked terrible. As skinny as a skeleton…moreover, her skin was bleeding and peeling off…she ended the surgery so sick that she almost died. We asked the surgeon to do something, or else she would die. It was truly a matter of time."
However, a second surgery improved Alla's condition. "We saw results within an hour," Dr. Vardi said. "It was truly like a flower that dried up, and then you give it water. It is amazing to see her smiling every morning and communicating with the doctors."
The Iraqi child, who up until recently ate and breathed with the aid of medical equipment, is now watching Israeli television shows, even though she can't understand a word. She likes to eat French fries, fruit – mostly pomegranates – and lemon-flavored candy. She is laughing regularly and asks her mother to take her outside often.
"She is a smart girl who asks questions about everything and talks like an adult," her mother said.
Doctors in Sheba treated many Palestinian children, and recently also treated an Iranian child. Dr. Vardi said that "this is a special experience mostly because of the encounter with a different culture and language. As the family speaks Kurdish, it's hard to communicate with them directly. At times I feel that perhaps we are building a bridge to peace here, and once Alla grows up she and her friends will undertake some kind of process."
Alla is the third Iraqi child operated on at Sheba. However, the non-profit group that brought her to Israel, Shevet Achim, assisted about 80 other children from Iraq in recent years. Meanwhile, hospital director Prof. Ze'ev Rotstein announced that the hospital will foot the bill for Alla's hospitalization at the rehabilitation ward for a month.