A hurt child, a U.S. hospital - but it wasn't that easy

By DAVID FINKEL, Washington Post
Published July 29, 2007

BAGHDAD - An hour after a car bomb exploded in downtown Baghdad on Thursday, killing at least 31 people, wounding at least 104 and destroying an apartment building, a phone call begging for help came to an Army officer in eastern Baghdad. It was from a man named Izzy who works as an interpreter for the U.S. military and whose calm voice was now filled with panic.

His apartment was in ruins, he said. One of his two daughters had been badly injured. Something had pierced her head when their apartment disintegrated. He had taken her to a hospital filled with the injured, but doctors had said she needed more help than they could give.

And so he was standing on a street with his bleeding daughter at his side, afraid that she was going to die.

"The only hope you have is to get her to an American hospital?" said Maj. Brent Cummings, executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, for which Izzy is an interpreter. He was repeating what Izzy had just said. Izzy started to answer. The cell phone went dead. "Izzy?" Cummings said. "Izzy?"

How do moments of decency occur in a place such as Baghdad, in a war such as this war?

"Bring your daughter here," Cummings said after dialing five, 10, 15 times and finally getting through.

It was a simple idea. The base where Izzy works in eastern Baghdad has a first-rate medical facility.

"Oh, thank you, sir. Thank you, sir," Izzy said.

And that's when things got complicated.

* * *

Any Iraqi hurt by the American military is eligible for American medical care. But this wasn't an American bomb, and so none of the injured was entitled to American care - including, it seemed, Izzy's daughter.

But what Cummings had in mind was Izzy's previous life, before he was an interpreter. He had lived in New York. He had worked there. And he had had a daughter. A daughter who is an American citizen.

Could an American citizen living in Baghdad, who was injured by a non-American bomb, receive medical care in an American military medical facility?

Cummings didn't know. Neither did several doctors he got in touch with. He wasn't even sure which of the daughters was injured - the one born in New York, or the one born in Baghdad, who wasn't an American citizen. He tried to call a lawyer, but there was no answer.

So he called Izzy back. "Izzy - okay - where is your daughter that is from the United States?"

Again the phone went dead.

"Which daughter is hurt? ... Is she on the street with you? ... Okay, is your U.S. citizen daughter with you? ... You can't what? ... What?"

Next he called one of the officers in charge of the base, whose approval would be needed for someone not in the military to get onto the facility.

"Yes, I'm sure we can produce a birth certificate," he said, wondering about a report that the bomb had set the apartment building on fire.

Next he called the battalion's physician and told him to be ready to treat one female, age unknown, in a matter of minutes.

Next he called Izzy to see how close he was to the base, and Izzy, his voice even more panicked than before, said he wasn't close at all, that he was still on the street, still next to his daughter, trying to find a taxi.

Back to another caller: "I don't know the extent of the injuries. ... I don't know if he's even in a cab yet. ... I don't know if they're going to make it here before curfew."

Now Izzy was calling. They were in a taxi. They were on the bridge, two minutes from the base.

Cummings hurried to the gate. It was dark now. The base ambulance pulled up. The guards said there's no way a taxi could get any closer than it had gotten, which was somewhere out of sight. "Get a litter," Cummings called to the ambulance crew.

Sprinting, he went out the gate, passing coils of razor wire and blast walls, then stopping when he saw Izzy walking toward him, illuminated by the headlights of the ambulance.

Izzy's clothing was filthy.

Next to him was his wife, who was crying.

On his other side was one of his daughters, the one born in New York, who appeared to be uninjured.

And in front of them all, walking slowly, was a young girl with shiny purple sandals, blood on her blue jeans and a bandage over the left side of her face.

* * *

This was the non-American daughter, the one born in Baghdad, who began crying as she was carried into the medical facility. In Arabic, she cried out for her father, who had to remain in the waiting area.

"Was it a car bomb?" Cummings asked.

"No, sir," Izzy said. "It was two car bombs."

And then he said nothing, not until one of the doctors came into the waiting area to tell him that his daughter was going to be all right.

"Thank you, sir," he managed to say, and when he was unable to say anything else, he bowed his head, then wiped his eyes, and then followed the doctor into the treatment area, where his daughter was surrounded by doctors and medics.

No one seemed concerned about the rules: not the doctors, not the family and not Cummings, who stood at the very same spot he had been at a few weeks before when the patient was a soldier of his who had been injured by a roadside bomb and had died in front of Cummings' eyes.

Again, Cummings found himself watching.

The injuries to the girl were serious. There was a deep cut across her cheek, and, worse, something had gone into the left side of her forehead and was embedded in her skull.

It took awhile, and at the worst of it the little girl couldn't remain quiet, but then the doctors were showing her what they had found - a piece of glass that was nearly 2 inches long - and soon after that she was smiling.

"Man, I haven't felt this good since I got to this hellhole," Cummings said quietly.