Afghanistan's first open heart operation gives Elaha new life

Kabul, April 5, 2006 (AFP) - Elaha, a 13-year-old Afghan girl, had been given only a few years to live before she underwent the first open heart operation in the history of Afghanistan.

Twenty-four hours later she was sleeping peacefully under the watchful eye of her mother Najeeba in a brand new hospital in Kabul built by French NGO group Enfants Afghans (Afghan Children).

Still hooked up to a heart monitor, a drip in her arm and a furry squirrel toy at her side, the teenager should be able to leave the intensive care ward Wednesday.

Her operation was a medical first in one of the poorest countries in the world where the public health structures, battered by 25 years of war, are not capable of this kind of surgery.

"The symbolic value overrides all technical aspects," says chief surgeon Alain Deloche. "We know that this is the first open heart operation in the history of Afghanistan -- I have done my research," he says with pride.

Deloche has since 1995 headed the Chaîne de l'Espoir (Chain of Hope), a French NGO specialised in humanitarian medicine such as the Enfants Afghans programme.

Elaha has always had her heart defect. "It was a malformation at birth -- normally there are partitions between the auricles but with her there were none. She would have died in two or three years," Deloche explained to AFP.

In France "it is one of the more classic operations", said the surgeon. There are between 800 and 1,000 every year, but they are usually performed on babies up to two years old.

Deloche is one of six French doctors who took part in this Afghan first under the wing of doctor Daniel Roux, a cardiovascular surgeon at Rangueil Hospital in Toulouse from where teams come in rotation to Kabul's French Medical Institute for the Child.

An Afghan surgeon, an anesthetist and two nurses were also in the operating theatre for Elaha's procedure.

The team had first chosen a young boy for their first operation in Afghanistan but his mother had refused when she learned what it entailed.

"The heart -- it's a cultural shock. When we told the first family that we were going to make a scar there, the mother said, "You will not operate on my child.'

"But that happens everywhere. In Cambodia it is the same when you talk about blood, scars," said Deloche.

But the fear was not shared by Najeeba, 32, who agreed to allow the team to operate on her daughter, despite opposition from her family.

It was a local doctor that suggested she take the girl to the "French hospital", which will be officially opened on Saturday by Bernadette Chirac, the wife of the French president Jacques Chirac.

Bernadette Chirac has been involved in the project since it was launched in late 2001, after the fall of the hardline Taliban regime.

Initially planned to be the "hospital of the mother and child", the French Medical Institute for the Child focuses on pediatrics. It has operated on about 100 children since November.

Enfants Afghans is responsible for all medical aspects of the programme while its direction, operation and a large part of its financing has since the start of the year been carried out by the Aga Khan foundation.