Zainab’s Gift

Later this month, three Iraqi women are scheduled to deliver six babies among them – one set of triplets, one set of twins, and one by his or her little self. All high-risk pregnancies, the women have c-sections planned through an International Medical Corps program in Syria that helps individuals with serious and/or chronic medical conditions who otherwise would not likely receive the treatment they need.

“These mothers are all at high-risk for complications during delivery and because of this program, they will be able to safely deliver their babies in a hospital,” says Hussien Ibrahim, International Medical Corps country director in Syria.

This initiative would never have come about had it not been for a 12-year-old Iraqi girl name Zainab. Diagnosed in January 2008 with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), Zainab came to Syria after doctors recommended she receive treatment outside of Baghdad for at least two years. A month later, Zainab began chemotherapy in Damascus’ Abaseen Hospital with a good prognosis – ALL has an 85 percent cure rate among children. While she showed signs of progress, Zainab had to stop chemotherapy after only four months because the costly procedure had exhausted her father’s limited resources.

Zainab found International Medical Corps when she came into a clinic, located in Sayeda Zainab in Rural Damascus, for a severe respiratory tract infection in June. International Medical Corps runs the clinic alongside the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Syria’s coordinating body for international humanitarian assistance to Iraqi refugees. However, thanks to some help from International Medical Corps, Zainab was able to finish her chemotherapy and was in remission by early fall.

Since opening its first clinic in May 2008, International Medical Corps found a significant number of patients who needed specialized interventions at advanced care-level hospitals for their chronic, but curable illnesses – including high-risk pregnancies – but they simply lacked the resources. Even through International Medical Corps referrals, patients were still unable to receive care, leaving people like Zainab to fall through the cracks of Syria’s health care system.

“There were a lot of chronic cases of women, elderly, children like Zainab, who came to International Medical Corps clinics seeking help for their treatable diseases and serious health issues, but found there was no assistance available to them anywhere,” says Dr. Waleed Ikram, International Medical Corps medical coordinator in Syria. “We couldn’t support treatment for all of them but we wanted to help at least those who were extremely poor and needy.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes, are the leading cause of mortality in the world, representing 60 percent of all deaths. An estimated 35 million suffered from chronic diseases in 2005, half of which were under 70 years old and were women. The WHO also estimates that 1,500 women die everyday from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications.

In response to this overwhelming need, International Medical Corps approached the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) about the possibility of including care for chronic and complicated health issues in its already successful Syria-Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program. By September, International Medical Corps received support from PRM to create its new program that would bring specialized treatment to people suffering chronic conditions, including Zainab.

As the new program started, Zainab stopped intensive chemotherapy and began maintenance therapy to prevent the cancer from returning. She responded well and was even permitted to travel back with her father to Iraq to see her family for a few days. However, in mid-November, Zainab relapsed and was admitted to Abaseen Hospital where she was cared for until she died of renal failure on December 19, 2008.

While her memory lives on with those who knew her, Zainab left a great gift behind to help many more. Twenty-two people with different conditions – ranging from those needing prosthesis and hearing aids to cancer surgeries – have already been assisted through the program she motivated. And now, later this month, three Iraqi women who would not have received care for their high-risk pregnancies will receive c-sections to bring six babies into the world safely, thanks to what one remarkable child, endured and inspired.

This story is from Lorea Russell, Regional Program Support Officer for International Medical Corps in Jordan and Syria. She has been stationed in the Middle East since June 2008 and has worked for International Medical Corps since October 2006.

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