Medical Mission in Iraq: Highlighting the Work of the Preemptive Love Coalition

Interview by Jodie Elrod
Interview by Jodie Elrod
In this interview we speak with Matt Willingham from the Preemptive Love Coalition (PLC), a medical coalition that helps to provide lifesaving heart surgery for Iraqi children. How did you get started? Describe Preemptive Love Coalition’s background. We originally moved to Iraq to work with marginalized women and widows, but were made increasingly aware of a backlog of Iraqi kids in need of lifesaving heart surgery. So in order to avoid asking for handouts, we began a business called “Buy Shoes. Save Lives.” (http://buyshoessavelives.com/) in July of 2007. The sale of these handmade Iraqi shoes gave us the profits we needed to begin sending kids to surgery in Israel. We eventually formed a partnership with a Johns Hopkins affiliate hospital (http://www.anadolusaglik.org/) in Istanbul, Turkey that allowed us to send even more kids out of the country, and that momentum has continued to build, as we're now hosting Iraq's first-ever cardiac medical mission trips. How many medical mission trips have you been on thus far? What locations have you traveled to? Apart from occasional trips to Istanbul, we're pretty much permanently located in Iraq. Until recently, we've sent most of our kids out of Iraq for surgery, but we're now planning to host cardiac medical teams in Iraq 4 times a year for 5 years in order to eradicate this backlog of Kurdish and Arab kids with congenital heart defects. We also see these medical mission trips as excellent opportunities for local Iraqi doctors, nurses and anesthesiologists to get valuable hands-on training in their field so they can eventually handle these procedures on their own. Tell us about the recent trip to Iraq. How long are you there for? How many patients have been treated? Well, we were in Iraq when the team of physicians arrived in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah. They worked in-country for 12 days and performed 25 interventional procedures during that time. Our staff will continue to live in Iraq in order to host these pediatric cardiac surgery and training missions, in hopes of developing surgical centers in the country that can adequately handle the backlog of sick children without our help. To date, PLC has helped send 86 kids to surgery in and outside of the country, and we hope to exponentially increase that number in the coming years. Who are the doctors and nurses that treat the patients? What kind of equipment is available? Our partner, International Children's Heart Foundation (http://babyheart.org/), provided an international surgical team for our first medical mission trip. The surgical center in which they operated is currently lacking many of the basic necessities to perform these operations, so ICHF has graciously brought their own equipment until we can either raise the funds to buy equipment for the center or get it donated. The echo machine used for screening kids is particularly bad, and has resulted in some poor quality screens which have led to complications during surgery. Tell us about some of your more memorable patients. During the recent Remedy Mission trip in August, we had a child, Ahmed, arrive and receive surgery through extraordinary circumstances. Ahmed's parents had spent years looking for an opportunity to send him to surgery, but they couldn't afford to send him out of the country without help. They heard a rumor about a surgical team in the north and decided to make the long drive, but before they made it out of their home city, they were hit by a truck and both parents were taken to the emergency room in critical condition. Ahmed was miraculously unharmed, and his uncle decided to drive him so he wouldn't miss his chance. Ahmed had 5 heart defects and, despite how bad things looked, he received a total correction. His recovery went smoothly and his uncle returned him safely to his parents. We were encouraged by this family's love and perseverance for Ahmed, and we're happy to report that both of the parents and Ahmed are recovering together. What have you learned about the people and the culture? There are a lot of presuppositions people have when they arrive in Iraq to work with us, but it's always good to see people learn — as we continue to learn — that Iraqis are normal people. The Kurds and Arabs we work with want peace for their families and their country. There's strife, for sure, but it's amazing how humanizing it is to have your child on an operating table hanging in the balance. We've seen hope, a desire for dignity, and sorrow in these people as they care for their children and one another in a way that most Westerners will never see on their TV sets. What are some of the challenges that have been faced during these missions? They're expensive, so funding is always an uphill battle. We're working with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) as well as the federal government in Iraq in hopes of getting more Iraqis dealing with this Iraqi problem. We also have problems with a lack of adequate equipment — especially screening equipment — and many of the local nurses working in ICU only have a middle school education. These nurses aren't used to dealing with such serious internal issues, and we've had children die in ICU from the lack of training and up-to-date equipment. Tell us about the costs associated with these trips. How are the missions funded? It varies, but we're estimating our next Remedy Mission to cost around $100,000. It is scheduled to take place in February 2011, and will be funded partially be the Preemptive Love Coalition and partially by the International Children's Heart Foundation. Both organizations primarily receive funding through donations, although PLC funds some of the costs through its “Buy Shoes. Save Lives.” program. Our hope is that by footing the bill for these initial surgical missions, the local powers that be will see their value and begin to help with the funding. For more information, please visit: http://PreemptiveLove.org