Iraqi baby receives lifesaving heart surgery at LLU Children’s Hospital
Vivian George and her son, Baby Kirillos, enjoy a moment of afternoon sunshine a month after his life-saving surgery at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital.
A routine flight from California to a secret and undisclosed location in “a free nation” marks the closure of an epic medical voyage for 15-month-old Kirillos George, known to the doctors and nurses at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital who saved his life as Baby Kirillos. At every step along the way, his journey underscores the tragic realities of life and death in the war-torn Middle East and the overriding providence of a merciful and mighty God.
Baby Kirillos was born July 5, 2006, in Baghdad, Iraq. His parents, Faris and Vivian George, were delighted to welcome their first-born child into the world, but their joy turned to desperation and fear shortly after his birth when Baby Kirillos was diagnosed with a rare, and often fatal, congenital heart defect known as tetralogy of fallot.
The condition—called TOF for short—is very serious; unless the patient’s heart is completely overhauled, 75 percent of people born with TOF do not survive beyond age 4.
The good news, the Georges learned, is that the condition is treatable. The bad news is that there’s no place in Iraq where it can be performed.
Samir Johna, MD, a former soldier in the Iraqi Army from the village of Abu Ghraib, explains the situation this way. “Forty years ago, we could have performed the procedure in Iraq. But right now, the Iraqi health care system is a shambles. Hospitals have been destroyed, equipment has been looted, and most of t
Baby Kirillos George reaches out to embrace a bright future after doctors at Loma Linda University successfully repaired his heart. The Iraqi infant and his mom have gone to be guests of an undisclosed nation after events in Iraq made it impossible for them to return to the land of his birth.
he nation’s physicians have fled the country under threats of kidnapping, torture, extortion, or death.”
When his parents learned that Baby Kirillos couldn’t get the help he needed in Iraq, they turned to friends and acquaintances for advice. Both Faris and Vivian were professional educators at the time; he taught math, and she taught computer sciences and social studies at Baghdad high schools. They felt certain that one of their colleagues would surely know where they could turn for help.
At the advice of friends, they knocked on every door they could find, but no one could help. They were instructed to appeal to the Christian churches of Baghdad. They did, but to no avail. And even though the couple are members of Iraq’s once sizable, but now decimated, Assyrian Christian minority, they were counseled to solicit assistance from the many Muslim mosques in town. They diligently pursued that lead as well.
But after countless days of increasingly disappointing efforts, the picture became depressingly clear: “We’d like to help you,” Faris and Vivian heard time and again, “but we just don’t have the resources to save your son’s life.”
As they prayed earnestly for a miracle to save their son’s life, the frantic parents pursued every lead they got, including a suggestion to post a notice on a website highlighting the problems of Iraq’s persecuted Christian minority. They logged on to <ankawa.com> and shared their dilemma with whomever might be surfing the web anywhere in the world. It was a desperate plea driven by their rock-solid commitment to saving the life of their son regardless of the cost. And against seemingly insurmountable odds, it paid off.
The miracle came when Dr. Johna (pronounced like Jonah, the biblical prophet) logged onto the website and read their story. In addition to his responsibilities as a general surgeon at Loma Linda University Medical Center and associate professor of surgery at the School of Medicine, Dr. Johna volunteers his time and services as medical director for the Assyrian Aid Society of America, a charitable organization representing the Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac communities of the world.
As he read the couple’s impassioned plea, Dr. Johna knew he had to get involved. After verifying that the couple’s story was legitimate, the former soldier began compiling a list of medical facilities capable of performing the procedure Baby Kirillos needed.
Not surprisingly, Loma Linda University Medical Center sat atop the short list.
“I placed a call to the office of the director of the global outreach program at Loma Linda University,” he explains. “I identified myself and told them the heart-wrenching story of Baby Kirillos. Then I described the treatment he needed to survive.”
During a conversation with Walter Johnson, MD, a neurosurgeon and member of the selection committee of the global outreach program, Dr. Johna was told he would have to secure an angiogram of Baby Kirillos’ heart in order for Dr. Johnson to approve the case through the committee.
“I told him that was impossible,” Dr. Johna states. “Just as no one could perform the life-saving operation in Iraq, no one could produce an angiogram there, either. I explained how desperate the baby’s parents were and how hard they’d been working to save the life of their very beloved son. Dr. Johnson said he would go to bat for us despite the fact that our application fell short of meeting the usual requirements.”
Dr. Johna turns to look out the window for a moment, then looks back and says, “I really can’t say enough about Walter Johnson and his associates at global outreach. They really went way out of their way to help us! I’ll never forget the day, a few days later, when he called back and told me to get Baby Kirillos and his mother over here as fast as I possibly could. The life-saving rescue mission was on!”
The Georges were understandably overjoyed when they heard the news. God had answered their prayers; their son was going to live! Even so, the project was shrouded in intrigue with many important details purposely withheld from them. For one thing, because of anti-American sentiment among certain sectors of the Iraqi population, the couple told their friends that the procedure was going to take place at a prominent hospital in India. For another, the date of their flight from Iraq was shrouded in mystery.
Which meant, of course, that Vivian and Baby K must be ready to travel at the proverbial drop of a hat. For reasons of security and international diplomacy, Faris would stay behind in Baghdad.
Why the shroud of mystery and intrigue? Because, as Dr. Johna points out, the religious and political polarization of Iraqis is all-pervasive and very dangerous, especially for people who are not members of the Muslim faith. “It wasn’t always this way,” he explains. “For thousands of years, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived and worked together side-by-side in a state of peaceful co-existence.
“But today,” he continues, “the insurgents—or whatever you want to call them—are a powerful force in Iraq. They are very suspicious of Christians and Jews because they perceive them as pro-West. The reason for that assumption is simple: Christians and Jews tend to be educated and more fluent in foreign languages than Muslims in Iraq, so they get the best jobs from the Americans. Therefore, because insurgents hate the West, they are very suspicious of Christians and Jews. Had their Muslim neighbors found out that Vivian and her son were headed for America, they would have killed Faris, no questions asked. As it turned out, they nearly did.”
The fact that the miracle they had been praying for would soon arrive did not mean it was all smooth sailing from there. Where were Faris and Vivian going to come up with the money for airline tickets, and how would they pay for several months of lodging for Vivian while she waited to bring her son home?
More than that, the couple wondered if Dr. Johna would be able to obtain sufficient cooperation from the international diplomatic community to cut through the red tape and secure the needed visas, passports, and emergency security clearances in time? They knew that such bureaucratic impediments can sometimes take years to resolve. But Baby Kirillos didn’t have years; his very survival depended on getting him onto the operating table as soon as possible.
While Vivian packed for the trip, Dr. Johna petitioned the leadership of the Assyrian Aid Society of America. He warned them that no one could discuss the case outside the society’s walls for fear of putting the life of Faris George in danger once his wife and son were en route to America. Would the society be willing, Johna needed to know, to accept full responsibility for financing their transportation to the United States and several months’ worth of lodging for Vivian once they arrived?
When the answer came back a few days later, Dr. Johna could hardly wait to share the news with Faris and Vivian. Thanks to the generosity of the Assyrian Aid Society members, Vivian and Kirillos would have round-trip airline tickets to “India,” and Vivian would have a place to stay there until they were ready to return to Iraq.
Next, Dr. Johna intensified his contacts within the American Embassy inside the famous Green Zone of Iraq. The embassy would not authorize Baby Kirillos to enter the United States until Dr. Johna produced a letter from Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital stating that they were willing to provide all medical care Baby Kirillos might require on a strictly charity basis. U.S. immigration policy made it absolutely clear that the baby and his mother would not be allowed to remain in the United States once the operation was successfully concluded no matter what.
The news wasn’t exactly a shock to Dr. Johna. He and Layla, his wife of 16 years, chose to evacuate their native Iraq in 1991 shortly after the outbreak of the first Gulf War. “We just got tired of living under the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein,” he recalls. “So like millions of other Iraqi Christians displaced in 33 countries of the world, we got out of there in a hurry. They only had to show up on my doorstep once.”
Wistfully, he recalls that it wasn’t always so. Growing up in the days of rural Abu Ghraib, Dr. Johna spent summers enjoying the primitive farming life in his grandfather’s orchards. “Those were wonderful days,” he remembers. “He recalls watching shepherds holding their staffs with crooks in the end just like King David. Some days I’d join them. My mom would give me a piece of bread wrapped in cloth. When we got hungry, I’d unwrap the bread, milk one of the sheep, and that was lunch. We’d stay out all day watching the flock. Nothing was essentially very different from the shepherd’s job in biblical times.”
For King David’s postmodern colleague, however, there was still much to do if he was ever to succeed in his mission of shepherding Vivian and Kirillos to life-saving surgery in the United States.
Once again, he contacted Walter Johnson at the global outreach program. Would Children’s Hospital be willing to put their commitment to saving the life of Baby Kirillos in writing to satisfy the demands of the U.S. Embassy?
Just hours later, the vital document arrived at the embassy in Baghdad. It estimated the cost of the surgery and extended care Baby Kirillos would receive at approximately $218,000. And yes, it said, Children’s Hospital would shoulder the bill with no strings attached. A short while later, the embassy alerted him that all needed documents were ready to go. Johna notified Vivian of the date for her upcoming departure to “India.”
As they said goodbye that fateful morning in August 2007, Faris and Vivian knew they were assuming some enormous risks. There were so many questions: Would their baby survive? Would they really be allowed to leave Iraq? Might not some unforeseen bureaucratic mixup intervene, at the last second, to prevent her and the baby from getting on that plane? Would the family ever be reunited again? The answers were, as they had been all along, in the hands of God. She and Baby Kirillos were on target for a place called Loma Linda.
On the morning of August 15, 2007, Leonard L. Bailey, MD—pioneering infant heart transplantation specialist at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital—opened the wall on Baby Kirillos’ chest and began the delicate operation to repair four separate problems in the tiny child’s heart: ventricular septal defect, pulmonary stenosis, overriding of the aorta, and right ventricular hypertrophy.
As the physician corrected the problems, blood began to flow freely throughout the baby’s heart. You can imagine the enormous sense of relief that overtook Vivian, Dr. and Mrs. Johna, and other well-wishers in the waiting room as Dr. Bailey came out to announce that the operation was a solid success and the prognosis for Baby Kirillos to live a long and healthy life was looking very good.
For Vivian, the news was profoundly significant. Thanks to the generosity of the people at Loma Linda University and Assyrian Aid Society, she and Faris did not owe a dime for the life-saving operation that had saved their son’s life. Thanks to the expertise and dedication of Dr. Bailey and the members of his team, the biggest worry she had ever known in her life had been lifted from her shoulders. And because of the larger-than-life efforts of Dr. Johna, the whole miraculous operation had come together just in time.
Although Vivian spoke no English, she made sure that her heartfelt thanks were expressed over and over from the bottom of her heart. Victory in the biggest battle of her life had just been handed her by an interlocking web of caring strangers who felt her pain and championed her cause. She couldn’t stop thanking God for opening the doors! She couldn’t believe how merciful He had been to her and Faris.
But as the days rolled by, large shadows began to form on the horizon for Vivian and Faris. First, she got an e-mail from one of her Muslim neighbors in Iraq asking how she liked living in the United States. Despite all the diplomatic secrecy imposed on the location of her actual destination, word had somehow leaked out on the street. Vivian chose not to respond.
Next, Faris was paid a visit, at his home in Baghdad, by insurgents. Their mandate was clear and simple: “We know your wife and baby have gone to America,” they warned. “If we find you here the next time we return, we will take your life. We hate Americans and people like you who are slaves of the West!”
Faris packed a few simple belongings and fled during the night. He traveled across the desert between Iraq and Syria and soon crossed into that nation to join a million or so of his fellow Iraqi expatriates in Damascus who had entered Syria for very similar reasons.
Dr. Johna puts the situation in perspective like this. “Iraqi Christians are people of peace,” he offers. “We don’t take sides in the fighting. But in the Sunni areas, we have been told to either evacuate our homes, pay an exorbitant tax, convert to Islam, or face certain death, usually by beheading.”
As soon as Vivian learned that Faris was safely in Syria, a new cloud of questions and anxieties began to form. Could he find work? Not likely; he was one in a million Iraqi drifters looking for work, food, and shelter in Syria, a nation poorly equipped to handle the enormous demands such an influx imposed on its infrastructure.
The other burning question that gnawed at her soul night and day was where would she go? October 22, 2007—the deadline her visa imposed as the outer limits of her permission to remain in this country—was less than a month away. She couldn’t stay here, but neither could she return to Iraq.
If anything, prospects were almost as bleak in Syria as they were in Iraq. How could she and Faris create any kind of stability for Baby Kirillos as exiles in the crowded refugee camps the United Nations had established throughout Syria?
Once again, she turned to the shepherd of Abu Ghraib. This time, however, Dr. Jonha had to tell her—rather painfully—that although he was willing to do everything he could, it might not be enough to resolve this latest round of difficulties.
“I finally told her,” he recalls, “that all I had ever promised her was that we—Loma Linda University, the Assyrian Aid Society, and all the others who helped with the project—would do our best to save her son’s life. I reminded her that now, it was up to her to pray and believe that the same God who had answered her prayers months before in Baghdad was still listening right now. It was an enormously difficult thing to say!”
Fortunately, Vivian had friends with connections with a variety of Christian organizations and relief efforts in other countries of the world, hoping that one of them might somehow, somewhere, persuade the government of their nation to open its doors to Vivian, Baby Kirillos, and Faris.
Privately, however, Dr. Johna wasn’t holding his breath. The U.S. immigration policies made it abundantly clear that it could not allow the family to emigrate here and he wondered if similar policies might apply in other nations as well. “The rules and regulations of international immigration are very strict,” Dr. Johna reflects. “There isn’t much room for overriding those rules for humanitarian reasons, much as they may want to.”
But there is still a God in heaven and there is still the burning reality of a mother’s heart pleading for her son, her husband, and herself to find a peaceful place to live. “Please, God,” Vivian begged. “You saved my son’s life! Please bring us to a land where we can live in safety.”
Miraculously, that’s just what God did. Vivian’s friends and relatives suddenly reported good news. Less than three weeks before the date of Vivian and Baby Kirillos’ scheduled flight to a very uncertain future in the Middle East, one of those organizations secured an invitation for Vivian, Baby Kirillos, and Faris to visit their country and apply for permission to emigrate.
All Dr. Johna is at liberty to disclose is the fact that Vivian and her son have gone to be the guests of a nation with a long-standing tradition of freedom. He emphatically insists it is not the United States and is extremely tight-lipped about its place on the globe. He himself doesn’t know where they’re living in their new country or how to contact them except through the gracious auspices of the host country that has taken them in from the storm and provided shelter.
And what about Faris? At this moment, he’s still trying to carve out a hardscrabble existence in the slums of Damascus. But the same Christian charity that got Vivian and Baby Kirillos to their new, clandestine location is busily working through diplomatic channels to get him there as fast as they can.
So also, of course, is the grown-up shepherd boy who now uses his skills in medicine, faith, and international diplomatic maneuvers to relieve the Herculean sufferings of people like Vivian and Faris George.
Dr. Johna is currently working with the system to bring four more babies to Children’s Hospital to see if God might use the same people and facilities of this hallowed place to continue, in a postmodern context, the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.
By James Ponder