Community supports Afghan girl through heart treatment at UNC hospital

dblustein@newsobserver.comJuly 3, 2013 

— A supportive crowd surrounded Maryam, 8, as she waited in her hospital room Wednesday, more than 7,000 miles from her home in Afghanistan.

The crowd was made up of her adopted family for the summer – a host mom from Raeford, an interpreter from Kabul, and Rita Bigham, a retired teacher and longtime hospital volunteer from Chapel Hill.

Maryam came from Afghanistan to receive treatment for a heart defect at North Carolina Children’s Hospital this week. And a team of North Carolinians helped make it happen.

Working through a Mooresville-based nonprofit group called Solace for the Children, Bigham raised more than $4,500 to fly Maryam to the United States. And the treatment had to be paid for, so Bigham and her husband set up a fund for that.

“I’ve always loved children,” said Bigham, a 16-year hospital volunteer who retired after 28 years as a schoolteacher.

A heart defect

Maryam has an extra blood vessel that connects the artery carrying blood to her lungs to her aorta, which carries oxygen-rich blood to her body.

If ignored, the condition could lead to high blood pressure in the lungs and eventually heart failure.

And while all babies are born with this extra connection in the heart, it usually closes during typical development.

When the blood vessel doesn’t close on its own, doctors such as Dr. Elman Frantz have to step in and act.

“We’ll take pictures of your heart and fix the hole in your heart,” the pediatric cardiologist told Maryam before the procedure.

Frantz hoped to block the hole with a plug that he would install through a catheter inserted along a leg artery to her heart.

Maryam opens up

Ashley Lewis, 26, Maryam’s host mom for the summer, has watched the young girl transform since her arrival at RDU airport on June 21.

When she first arrived she was very reserved and wouldn’t smile, Lewis said.

But on Wednesday her smile shined through any unease she felt at the hospital.

Now, she’s comfortable, part of the family, Lewis said.

Lewis’ 5-year-old daughter, Calista, even calls her “Sissy.”

They hold hands, play together, and even fight over dolls, Lewis said: “They get along like most sisters would.”

A heart sister

Frantz wasn’t able to plug the hole on Wednesday.

“The short version is: She’s going to need surgery,” he said after he found a narrowing of her aorta during the catheter procedure.

But her prognosis is good.

“I think she’s going to do well and have an excellent result from surgery,” Frantz said.

And the hospital has paired Maryam with a heart sister, a girl who has already experienced heart surgery. Hannah Saye, 6, of Pinehurst, had surgery to fix a congenital heart defect when she was 12 days old.

When rain dampened the initial meeting of the girls at a pool, they turned to ice cream, a treat that crosses any language barrier.

Maryam loves cookies-and-cream ice cream.

The two played together before Maryam’s first hospital visit on Tuesday, too. Hannah was a familiar face before the parade of new ones in the doctor’s office.

And in the coming days, Maryam will have more involved surgery, one that again links her to her new friend. It turns out that Maryam’s next surgeon, Dr. Michael Mill, will be the same one who fixed Hannah’s heart.

Blustein: 919-829-4627

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