Doctors in Knoxville, Tennessee say a young Iraqi girl is steadily improving after surgery to repair her spine. Gufran Alayass was born with a serious deformity known as spina bifida. She lived with the condition for 10 years, unable to walk. But one day, her father took her to see an American soldier serving in Baghdad. And her life hasn't been the same since.
Spina bifida is a birth defect in which the spinal column doesn't close completely while the baby forms in the womb. In the United States, doctors can usually stabilize the spine within the first few months of a baby's life. But growing up in Iraq, Gufran Alayass didn't have that luxury. Somehow, though, she managed to survive with a piece of her spine sticking out of a 10- to 12-centimeter hole in her lower back. Knoxville pediatrician Rick Glover says there's no good explanation for why she is still alive. "She had a defect on her back that's been there for 10 years and it's never gotten infected. [She] never got meningitis from that. Her spine is exposed to the world. How that's happened… her parents have provided tremendous care for her and I think God smiled on her."
If God smiles on Gufran, she's quick to smile back. Gufran loves to smile. It's one of the first things you notice about her. That, and brightly colored drawings that paper the wall around her bed. She describes them for her visitors. "This is the fish, and this Snow White, if you know her. This is the sun. And then beneath the sun is the flowers." She pauses a moment before adding satisfied, "Yeah."
Gufran's English is one part Iraq, one part East Tennessee. The fact that she speaks any English at all shows how much her life has changed in recent months. Last year, she spoke no English and Iraqi doctors were preparing her parents for her inevitable death. That's when her father took her to some American soldiers and asked if they could help his daughter. One of them sent his request over the air to a country music radio station in Knoxville.
During WIVK's Voices from the Front segment, Maj. Mark Sharber passed up the chance to say 'hi' to his family and friends, and instead, made a plea to save Gufran's life. "I'd be remiss if I didn't take this opportunity to try to plead with the people in your audience," he told deejay Ted Ousley, known as Gunner, "any kind of charitable organizations, a church, anybody that would have any kind of influence or financial backing that would maybe help us to get some surgery that she desperately needs."
The response was immediate. Gunner recalls he got a phone call from his wife. "She said, 'Did you hear that?' and I said, 'Yeah, I was listening' and she said 'You've got to do something.' And I realized through it that the hope he was looking for and the person that could help him was me, on the other side of the microphone."
Gunner was able to enlist the help of military and government officials to clear the way for Gufran and her parents to come to the United States. The Faith Welch Fund, a Knoxville charity which helps foreign children in need of medical care, offered to pay for Gufran's hospital expenses. Local surgeons and doctors offered their own services for free. And in January, Gufran and her father were on an airplane headed to Tennessee.
The trip reminded Abdul Alayass of the promise he had made to climb the highest mountain to save his daughter. "I remember in the airplane between Jordan and New York when I see the mountains and I remember this, my promise, and I thank my God."
At East Tennessee Children's Hospital, doctors reinforced Gufran's spine and have been working to cover the hole in her back. Gufran's mother came to the United States after the surgery, and the three are staying with Dr. Rick Glover in Knoxville. But the family's other children are still in Iraq living with grandparents. And their father worries about their safety. As Dr. Glover explains, Abdul Alayass's dealings with American soldiers can easily be misinterpreted as some kind of collaboration. And in Iraq, that can be deadly. "He's here to try to help his child. Period." Glover says. "That's what he came for. He's not here to be an American, he's not here to help an American, he's here to receive medical care that we offered to help his child."
Abdul and Zeinab Alayass say they've been overwhelmed by the care, acceptance and love Gufran has found in America. But with her progress coming slowly, the only thing she now needs is something nobody can give her: patience.