Born with a potentially fatal heart defect, 11-year-old Wsam Rabea used to faint when he tried to join in soccer games in his hometown of Kut, Iraq. But now, after traveling around the world to undergo open heart surgery, he cannot wait to play with his friends.
"I used to have pain and heaviness in my chest. Now I am perfectly comfortable," Wsam told reporters through a translator at a hospital news conference.
Wsam is one of four Iraqi children who underwent surgeries in the last week to repair life-threatening congenital heart defects in a joint effort by an international humanitarian organization and the U.S. military.
Last week, a pediatric cardiac team at New York's Montefiore Medical Center performed a complicated procedure to increase blood flow to Wsam's heart and a major aortic artery.
Wsam was discharged this morning from the hospital in good condition, along with two other boys and one girl who also underwent critical heart surgery.
"These four beautiful children now have their lives back," said Dr. Samuel Weinstein, head of the team that performed the procedures. "None of the children would have lived to adulthood without the surgery," he explained.
The children arrived in New York City from Amman, Jordan, earlier this month after an Army reservist assigned to the U.S. military's Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Center put their families in contact with the Gift of Life International.
The Gift of Life, an arm of the Rotary International civic organization, helps children around the world with heart problems by providing them with financial help to receive medical care. The Rachel B. Cooper Foundation also paid for the cost of the hospitalizations.
In September, Staff Sgt. Marikay Satyrano, a Bronx school teacher stationed in Amman, identified 60 Baghdad children as potential candidates for heart surgery. Working with the Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Center, Satyrano organized trips to Amman for the children and their families so that they could be screened by a Jordanian pediatric cardiologist.
In the end, four were chosen: Wsam Rabea, 6-year-old Sivar Mohammad, 14-year-old Asaid Sibreai and 12-year-old Ashjan Khaled.
"We came there to make things better and this is the first step," said Satyrano of her efforts to help the children.
With her assistance, the Gift of Life arranged for travel to the United States and made arrangements for the children and their fathers to stay with local host families and at the Ronald McDonald House. All four patients will return to Montefiore in three weeks for follow-up consultations before heading back to Iraq.
As the children and their dads left the hospital, they expressed overwhelming gratitude at the prospect of a better life.
"For years, my daughter suffered from health problems. Vacations and festivals came and went and still, she was sick," said Ashjan's father.
"But this year, flowers bloomed in this city, New York, and in her heart."