- The Washington Times - Monday, June 13, 2005

CAMP SALERNO, Afghanistan — Doctors and nurses in the intensive care unit at the U.S. military hospital here call him Blue, a 6-year-old Afghan boy with an infectious smile and mischievous spark in his slightly crossed eyes.

But unlike other Afghan boys his age who often run alongside heavily armed U.S. Humvee patrols, offering to trade their handmade paper toys for pens and pencils, Blue can hardly walk 50 feet before he is short of breath and has to rest.

Blue — his real name is Omar — has a rare heart condition that could kill him within two years if left untreated.

Lt. Col. David Barber, the hospital commander, said Blue has tetralogy of Fallot, a condition in which the heart sends blood to the periphery rather than into the core of the lungs, resulting in poorly oxygenated blood.

That, in turn, causes Omar’s fingers, toes, lips and tongue to turn blue, thus his nickname.

But if Maj. Sloane Guy has his way, Blue will undergo an operation at the Children’s Hospital National Medical Center in Washington.

Maj. Guy, a cardiac surgeon who has treated the boy for the past three months, has arranged for Blue to undergo surgery in one of the best pediatric cardiology centers in the United States, Col. Barber said.

Dr. Richard Jonas will perform the surgery gratis, the Larry King Foundation has agreed to pay for the boy’s treatment, and America’s Greatest Generation, a World War II veterans group, will foot the bill for Omar and his father’s trip to Washington and back, Col. Barber said.

“We’ve set the date for the operation at the end of June,” Col. Barber said.

“All we need is a word on transportation and Blue’s father can travel to Islamabad to get their visas.”

Dr. Jonas and officials at Children’s Hospital declined to comment, citing patient privacy rules.

Col. Barber said that without surgery Omar could die within two years. But if the surgery is successful, Omar could live to 40.

“It’s almost a normal life span in this part of the world,” Col. Barber said.

The treatment in the United States would mark the end of a long ordeal for Omar and his father, Fate Mohammed, a truck driver from the village of Murukhel in Paktika Province.

Mr. Mohammed has traveled all over Afghanistan and Pakistan seeking treatment for his firstborn.

“A doctor in Ghazni Province told us that he has a heart condition but he can’t treat it,” Mr. Mohammed said, looking affectionately at his son, who was giving “high fives” to nurses.

“I took him to Karachi, Pakistan, but doctors there said that they have to treat him for four years and only then they will operate on him for 600,000 rupees [about $5,000]. I don’t have so much money.”

Desperate, Mr. Mohammed turned to the U.S. Army Provincial Reconstruction Team in Paktika.

“They brought us here in a helicopter,” Mr. Mohammed said. “And doctors told me that they have to send him to the United States.”

Not once has he doubted that his son would receive the expensive treatment in the United States, Mr. Mohammed said.

“I’m sure he’ll go to the United States,” said Mr. Mohammed, speaking through a translator. “I know that when coalition forces promise something, they keep their word.”

In the three months that Omar has spent at the hospital in Camp Salerno, the affectionate boy has bonded with the staff, occasionally raising a ruckus in the somber intensive care unit.

Gulab Khalil, an interpreter, said one of the nurses gave Omar a harmonica.

“Bad idea,” Mr. Khalil said with a laugh. “He kept playing that harmonica day and night, nobody could sleep here. So I had to trick him into giving up the harmonica for a loaf of freshly baked bread. But he still wants his harmonica back.”

Omar is a bright boy, said Staff Sgt. Chad Walker, who is in charge of the hospital unit.

“He already understands a lot of English,” he said. “I’m sure he’ll be speaking soon.”

As if on cue, Omar raised his pinky in a “you rock” salute and blurted out, “What’s up?”

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