Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world!

That was my emotional moment of this late trip to Kurdistan. I was helping screen over 700 kids at a village school on Tuesday. Most of the kids during these large-scale screenings have normal hearts. We’re just trying to pick up that very small percentage that may not have been diagnosed. We do a basic cardiac exam and if we find any abnormalities, we have one of our two pediatric cardiologists (Kirk and Mary Porisch) perform an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart). Pragmatically, we only have minutes with each child. They don’t speak our language. We smile and try to be as loving as possible, as their poor little hearts race from nervousness about seeing foreign doctors. The older children have been taught to say “how are you?” I try my limited Kurdish words: “hello,” “you are good,” and “all done.” I find the word for “you are good” usually brings a relieved smile. As I touch each one, I say a small prayer in my head. I don’t know nor probably will never know their story. I will likely never come in contact with them again. I am overwhelmed by the fact, however, that God knows them. It is beyond my comprehension that God knows me so graciously, mercifully, and intimately…and knows each one of these children as well. He knows their hopes, their dreams, their struggles. He loves them. And He asked me and nine other people to travel to the other side of the world to communicate that fact. Still brings tears.

The ten of us (me; Kirk; Mary; Minnette Son, pediatric ICU doctor; Barbara Jo Achuff, pediatric cardiac hospitalist; Cathy Woodward, PhD, Nurse Practitioner (NP); Lisa Matasovsky, NP; Nelia Soares, NP; Mike Andersen, pharmacist; and Tim Sanken, indescribable servant of God) went on this trip for two overarching reasons: to perform heart catheterizations in Sulaymaniyah and to screen children in the village of Shoresh. Our incredible nurses also provided a nursing conference and practical clinical teaching in both locations.  Kirk, Allison Cabalka, and I were in Sulaymaniyah in March and had hoped to perform caths, but God had other plans. Kirk had planned this screening trip and I did not plan on accompanying him because I usually just travel when I’m performing anesthesia, trying to limit my time away from my practice at home. But given our inability to do caths in March, he planned for us to do two days of caths this time. One major goal of what we do internationally is to train the local doctors. I had met the two anesthesiologists chosen to be involved in the new pediatric cardiac program, knew they had yet to be involved in providing general anesthesia for pediatric caths, and knew before I even left last time that I would have to figure out a way to come back. It’s interesting that I read a devotional in Oswald Chambers’ “My Utmost for His Highest” right after we got home that talked about honoring the commitments you make during “mountaintop” emotional experiences. So easy to go home, get back into the busyness and cares of “normal” life, and talk yourself out of these commitments. I made my planes reservations for a whirlwind trip.

Kirk had gone to Kosovo the week prior to this trip to transport back a child whose heart had been repaired in Orlando, to do some screening, and to follow-up on the five kids we had done surgery on there last summer (I will post separately what he wrote about that experience). He and most of the other team members arrived in Jordan on Wednesday and Thursday and were able to take advantage of some local touring. Me and one other time member arrived Friday night. We got up at 3:30 a.m. to get to the airport to fly to Sulaymaniyah and our day ended at 11 p.m. after a day of visiting the city market, visiting with some of our prospective patients at the hospital, and having dinner with the local doctors. We were at the hospital at 8 then on both Sunday and Monday and ended both days at 11 again.

We took care of nine children in those two days. We closed two abnormal vessels (PDAs, for those medical practitioners out there), ballooned three tight valves (two pulmonary and one aortic), and performed four diagnostic studies. Three of those children will need further procedures. One was a surprise and relatively recent diagnosis for an approximately 10-year-old girl whose parents thought she had a normal heart until a murmur was recently detected. Her prognosis is good. Two were good news because there was a question whether they were going to be candidates for operative repair. The last was bad news. It is too late for operative repair on this child. There is little joy in being part of these cases. Our team takes it very hard, let alone the family. One of our team members reported that she took solace in the fact that, in a sense, we are protecting this child. There is such a desire to “do something” that someone might attempt to perform surgery on this child, likely causing her demise. She will likely live longer without surgery so at least we can provide the family that information. It’s sill what drives us to do these large-scale screenings though, to find these children before it is too late.

We were in the cars heading to the village of Shoresh at 7 on Tuesday morning. It is a village that resulted from widows and orphans being abandoned there during Saddam’s regime. Our driver told us most did not survive this abandonment. The village is now sixty percent widows and orphans. Samaritan’s Purse has built an incredible community center there called the Fountain of Love: big two-story clinic building; three lovely guest villas for staff and visiting teams; gymnasium, soccer field, and basketball court; and acres of newly planted olive, apricot, and pomegranate trees. There are visions for a school there some day. This week is the official grand opening. There was a desire for it to be “working” when it opened, so we had the honor of being the first team to visit. It is beautiful!!! Our team gets to be ambassadors to the community about this new facility, so the plan was for us to visit three or four schools in the village this week. While most of the team went to a school for a morning and afternoon session, the two cardiologists stayed at the Fountain of Love clinic to evaluate kids with known heart disease. While we saw over 700 in the school yesterday, they saw over 30 in the clinic. The last patient of their day was a girl who was now inoperable. Seems to me the Lord keeps ending our days this way to keep us motivated.

In keeping with my desire to limit my time away from work, I left the team at 9 p.m. on Tuesday. They will do at least two-and-a-half more days of screening and then participate in Fountain of Love’s grand opening celebration on Friday. They are expecting up to 500 people, dignitaries included. I’m in the London airport as I write this. I texted Kirk and asked him how the day was going and his simple reply was “busssssssssssy.” I’m not surprised. I can’t tell you how sad I was to leave the team, but how grateful I was that I got to participate at all. I pray for them as they continue on loving these children, in Jesus’ name.