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Burn Survivor Stories: Children Getting Another Chance at Life

This month, a young Iraqi boy disfigured by a car bomb in Iraq came to Long Island, NY for surgery that could give him a chance at a normal life. Zeenabdeen Hadi, now four years old, was barely a year old when the blast burned part of his face down to the bone.

The Global Medical Relief Fund helped bring the boy and his uncle to the United States. The two are staying at Ronald McDonald House in New Hyde Park, NY and are expected to be there for several months. In addition to reconstructive surgery, doctors want to close a wound in Zeenabdeen’s forehead that could lead to a brain infection.

This is not the first time that young victims of severe burns in Iraq have been brought to the U.S. for life-altering and even life-saving treatment of injuries resulting from third-degree burns. In 2007, a six-year-old Iraqi boy, who was horribly scarred after he was set on fire by insurgents outside Baghdad, underwent surgery in Los Angeles to repair his badly burned face. The boy, known only as Youssif, will need almost a year and several more surgeries to recover. The American public responded generously to his needs, donating $300,000.

One month before they were brought to Los Angeles, Youssif’s desperate father approached a CNN television crew in Iraq and said, “Look what these monsters did to my boy.” Donations poured into the Sherman Oaks-based Children’s Burn Foundation. The foundation covered visas, plane tickets and medical costs.

Dr. Richard Grossman detailed the plan: First, some scar tissue was removed from the forehead and nose area and replaced with temporary grafts.Two skin expanders were inserted too. The following week, a full skin graft was performed with skin from Youssif’s abdomen. Later, the expanded skin replaced the surrounding scar tissue.

The surgeries can never completely undo the disfigurement, but Youssif’s spirits were very high about the idea of living a normal life.

Here’s a similar story: In 2010, after a year in the U.S. where he underwent five surgeries to treat severe burns, an Iraqi boy landed at the Baghdad airport to reunite with his family. 13-year-old Mohammed wore a Detroit Tigers baseball cap and a T-shirt reading “Property of Michigan State” — the university where his surgery was performed.

Caught in a house fire started by rebels when he was only two years old, Mohammed was severely scarred. Then three years ago, his father was gunned down by insurgents for working as translator for U.S. troops. When his uncle went to the morgue to claim the body, he too was killed by militants, who warned Mohammed’s mother they would kill her and her children if she ever contacted the U.S. military.

Instead, Mohammed went on his own to an army checkpoint outside Ramadi in November 2008 and asked a Michigan Army National Guard physician assistant named Howell to save him and take him to America.

It took Howell six months to get permission, but he managed to get Mohammed to Michigan, find him a Muslim host family, and set up a foundation to pay for his operations.

Black, glossy hair now grows where only scar tissue was before. And Mohammed’s left hand and wrist — deformed in the fire — now can field baseballs. He gained 26 pounds and grew 3.5 inches during his time in America — and he now speaks English with an American accent.

Howell said they are hoping to find a way to someday get Mohammed back to the U.S. for college, hopefully at Michigan State.