On Wednesday night the Shevet Achim community in Jerusalem gathered at 29 Prophets Street to celebrate Asma’s homegoing to Iraq. It was an unusually beautiful party. Asma and her mother cried openly at Liliyah’s words. Soon other mothers were crying. Asma’s mother expressed the gratitude of her whole family in Iraq, especially of the father, and invited Shevet Achim to visit their home.
After formal words, there was lingering for perhaps two more hours, watching a remembrance video of Asma’s heart treatment in Israel, singing together and listening to music. And then, with the rising of the sun on Thursday morning, Asma and her mother said goodbye to Shevet Achim. They began traveling towards the Jordanian border, and a flight from Amman to northern Iraq.
The farewell blog posted below is by Shevet volunteer Liliyah. Her words were written during the return trip from the border to Shevet Achim. So place yourself in a vehicle traveling south and east from the Jordan Valley, climbing slowly from one of the lowest points on earth, upwards to mountainous Jerusalem, and try to feel what Liliyah was feeling minutes after saying goodbye to her beloved Asma…
The beautiful palm trees, hills, and greenery are just a blur through my tear-filled eyes. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! Sometimes I think, what's the point of loving someone only to lose them a mere 5 weeks later? Why pour out my whole heart into a couple of people who are just passing through my life's story, as I briefly pass through theirs?
Small talk on the ride home from the Jordanian border won't clear away the tears. I wish to dwell and relive every moment, cherishing the time spent together with Asma in the past five weeks: the laughter, the learning, the anxiety and fear before the surgery followed by the relief and joy afterwards; the walks and the outings, the flower, the crafts, and the balloons; the waking early for morning medicine, and the speed of pulling out our notebooks and pens for each new English or Kurdish word; sleeping in the neighboring bed after staying up late into the night talking and laughing, or watching cartoons while snacking on apples or oranges…
Stop it! I told myself that I could not cry, that I had drank enough coffee in the morning to be dehydrated of tears. I told myself that the tears from last night at the party were enough. Yet they come, unwillingly.
I should be happy, Spas bo Xua! (Thanks be to God!) Ta-wow! (It is finished!) Hua legul! (God go with you!) Dust hosh! (Bless your hands!) Hua-hafees! (Goodbye!)
But, as we stand waiting for the passport control agent to check visas and passports before boarding the bus, my voice breaks, and rather than giving instructions for what to do at the Jordanian border, I ask if they're sure they want to go. I remember what Asma said to me the night before her surgery, when I left the hospital: "You're leaving now?" It still rings in my ears. This time, I am not leaving her, she is leaving me. “Are you sure you want to go?” After all, Brian is waiting in the car, there is still a chance for all of us to go back…!
Our last round of hugs and kisses and goodbyes erupted into a tearful parting. The agent reviewed their documents and indicated that they may board the bus. Curious stares were attracted from those on the bus and those still waiting in queue. I could not hold up the line much longer. My mind intentionally ordered my body away from my loved ones, and I forced myself to put distance between myself and them. Standing outside the bus and waving goodbye, when I could see them no more, I sullenly turned and walked away with heavy steps.
Such a proper little lady, pulling out a tissue to dry her tears on the bus, while I swat mine away with my bare, dry hands. Just a few days ago, when we were standing in front of the lunch table, I suddenly realized just how short she is. Her poise deceives me and I think she is much older than her age.
I blindly made my way out of the border control area. Someone yelled out to me to collect my escort badge at the entrance, as the tears streamed down my face. As I settled into the car, I collapsed into sobs. This is for real. My little teacher is gone.
Hua-hafees, gyan. Goodbye little one. En-shala (in God’s will) we will see each other again one day.
For her, I would lay down my life. When her surgery's outcome was uncertain, I cried out to God. Although I had only known her a week at that point, I did not know what I would do if we lost her.
I feel like I am writing a eulogy, but there is nothing further from the truth. In fact, it is indeed a transition, a flipping of the page, the beginning of a new chapter. Asma has freedom to live her life, not held back by a heart condition. She has freedom to pursue her dream to study medicine, a dream identical to my own.
Okay, I'm finally beginning to see the green rolling hills outside the car window. Beautiful, yes. But my heart is raw and numb, so freshly torn. In the past five weeks I perforated a piece of my heart, and today that piece was painfully torn out as I left it with them.
Hua-hafees, gyan. Goodbye my love. En-shala we will see each other again one day.
I know it hurts, but I will do it again and again. The task is not yet behind us. Many more children in Kurdistan are in great need of surgery. They need a friend to give some sense of assurance, and strength to guide them along. It can only happen if we give 100%, loving unconditionally, even though we foreknow the pain in parting.
Hua-hafees, gyan. Goodbye, my love. En-shala we will see each other again one day.
What shall I do then? Stop loving in order to protect my feelings, my heart, my emotions? No. Rather, I shall love more abundantly and give more freely of myself, sharing not just meals with the children, but sharing my life with them, just as I tried to do with Asma and her mother. I will shower them with affection, with hugs and kisses, with attention, with time... I will offer all of me, because in the end, this is all I have to give up for God. If Jesus so freely gave of Himself to others while He walked this earth...
We are privileged to walk out this journey with the families. Just for a time, we are privileged to be a part of their lives and hold them close. I did not know if I was giving of my heart enough, until I saw them burst into tears at the party last night and this early afternoon when we said goodbye. I know our love for each other was mutual.
Hua-hafees, little Asma. Goodbye, little one. En-shala we will see each other again one day.
Last night and this morning, Asma and I just had the giggles. We were laughing over the silliest things, tickling each other, talking, remembering funny things that happened during the last month...special moments that I will wrap into my memory box and treasure forever. On the long road trip to the hospital this morning, we went from learning English, to learning Kurdish, to memorizing the "Down by the banks of the hankey-pankey" (a hand clapping game I taught her), to listening to her favorite Kurdish song, to breaking into tears at the news that Aryan is coming home today. Below is a picture of Asma and her little friend Aryan.
As we sat outside of the examination room awaiting her last echo, Asma told me about her many friends back home. She fondly thought of her best friends who have called her while she has been here. She misses them. How could I blame her? Asma is just 13 years old and has already missed an entire month of school. Here, she hasn't been able to express herself fully, because of the language barrier. As much as I would like to hold on to her forever and keep her here, I know the time is coming up when I must let go. According to the doctor, that time is soon.
On the medical side of things, Dr. Sagi reduced Asma’s medication to half dosage, and declared today’s echo to be her last. However, when Dr. Alona took a look at all of the paperwork, she said that Asma doesn’t need medication at all, that she is perfect. Just the news we like to hear! Asma's heart has healed perfectly, thanks to the grace of God.
It seems that Asma and her mother feel torn between wanting to go home right away to be with their family, and wanting to stay longer here with our community. Both are very happy and would like to send a heartfelt thank you to everyone connected to Shevet Achim that made this surgery possible. Thank you for your prayers and your financial support; they are very grateful for the new life promised by her transformed heart.
"Lub-dub, lub-dub,..." Checking Asma's vital signs yesterday evening was exciting. It was the first time I could hear her heart after surgery, and instead of hearing a "shooo" sound for her beating heart, I heard a solid lub-dub! Praise God! I was so excited to hear a healing heart working properly, giving Asma the hope to live her life to the fullest.
Our concern, however, centered on her low blood pressure, pain in her left abdomen, dizziness, and her poor appetite. Upon calling the hospital, the doctor asked to admit her that very night for various blood tests and an echo in the morning. Asma's mother began to sob heavily at the news, disappointed that they needed to return to the hospital, potentially delaying her eventual return home to Iraq.
Every procedure at the hospital produced a plethora of questions, such as, "Why do they need to draw blood?" "When will they know the results of the blood tests?" "Why did the nurse ask that?" and finally as we left, "Will you be here tomorrow morning for the echo?" My limited vocabulary meant that I was frantically flipping through my pages, picking up words here and there, trying to reassure the mothers everything was alright. I say "mothers" with a plural because Hawre's mother, Aryan's mother, and Asma's mother were all in this together as a family unit, wanting to know the details of the progress of each of their children, demanding to have all of the answers.
As we walked into the hospital today at noon, with pride mother and daughter declared that Dr. Alona had said everything was well, no problems, an echo is scheduled in one week’s time, and a week after that they will be on their way home to Iraq. The burning questions at the moment were, “When do we get to go home?” and, “Can you ask the nurse to take out Asma’s IV port?” When it appeared the IV could be removed right away, Asma set to work picking apart her bandaged hand so that the nurse could easily remove the port. Disappointment lined her face when asked to wait until the doctor confirmed that she was being released.
The first part of the 5-hour wait for some important papers from the nurse's station was easily spent over lunch, entertaining Aryan, making a balloon flower,
and even going out for a walk in the fresh air with a wheelchair.
The last two hours Asma were exhausted, and at last at 5pm we departed from the hospital, Asma soon sleeping sweetly on her mother's shoulder in the vehicle.
It may have been a disappointing false alarm, but we certainly did not want to take any chances. Her health is delicate. And at the moment she is progressing beautifully.
Asma has made such good progress that we were asked to collect her from Wolfson Hospital today and bring her back to Shevet Achim. At the time appointed she and her mum were waiting, but we had a further hour's delay whilst medication was being put together for her.
Asma was obviously delighted to be leaving the hospital after a long wait and she appeared to be both happy and content on our long drive back. She even practiced her English on a few occasions, and she speaks well! She was welcomed by the other Iraqi families here, and by our staff, with open arms. How lovely to have her back with us again.
Asma will be returning to Wolfson hospital for her first post-op echo on Monday, January 30th.
I rushed through the hospital corridors, a packaged red Gerbera Daisy in hand, peeking into each room to spot my Kurdish delight. The last time I had seen her had been in the ICU after surgery on Sunday evening (less than a week ago, but it has felt like forever!). Apparently she's been out of the ICU since Tuesday! Reaching the end of the hall and still no sign of her, I ran back to our group that was making a hospital visit today, breathlessly asking, "Where is Asma?!" A nurse standing nearby overheard me, smiled, and guided me into her room, just as Asma's mother stepped into the corridor. What a joyful reunion with both Asma and her mother! Kisses and hugs, smiles stretching ear-to-ear, a healing heart with just one tube still connected to her body, and a red daisy in hand...what more could a girl ask for?
I told Asma that I wanted a picture of her, but she was hesitant, wrinkling her nose, pointing at her matted hair, and saying she doesn't look good. My purse happened to contain the perfect solution: a comb. Her mother and I helped her sit up so that I could gently comb her thick, luscious, wavy hair, as I updated them about Yaqoob's arrival last night, as well as how Najlaa and Hawre are doing back at our Jerusalem home. With each stroke of my brush, my heart was ready to burst with joy and excitement at seeing Asma doing so well so soon after surgery. I cannot wait to listen to her heart through a stethoscope and not hear the "shoo" noise in her heart--the first heart abnormality I had ever heard, a heart that didn't make a "lub-dub" sound. Suddenly, I stopped what I was doing to squeeze her tight and tell her how happy I am to see her again. She laughed with a twinkle in her eyes. Then they related to me how sad they were yesterday, when the two were placed in isolation, in fear that Asma had acquired an infection. After playing with the flower and a camera, Sophie (our volunteer from China) and I braided her hair.
Dr. Tamir came in at just the right moment, kindly explaining Asma's progress, giving us hope that she will be ready to go home by Sunday! We hung around long enough to see the drainage tube, which gave her slight discomfort, taken out today. I would like to think that we were the right anesthesia for that moment, because she told me, beaming, that she had no pain during the short procedure. This time, as I left, there was a large smile plastered across her face, and a cheerful goodbye wave. No tears. No fear. Just hope for a better future.
After open heart surgery, the first few days are typically measured by several significant milestones. Asma experienced her first step of recovery today by being extubated. This simply means that the ventilator providing respiratory assistance was disconnected. She is now breathing independently and using a mask for supplemental oxygen. The general anesthesia has also completely worn off. Her mother happily reported that Asma opened her eyes at 10:30am this morning.
When I asked what was the first thing to come from Asma's lips, her mother said, "Ow!" ("Water" in Kurdish). We laughed together as I explained that English speakers would think Asma was in pain by saying "ow," rather than asking for water.
It was beautiful to see joy in her face. I recognized relief as well when the doctor reported that Asma's is progressing as she should without complication. "The first few days after surgery are difficult," I further explained, "but they will get better." Asma's mother had faithfully sat by her daughter's side through the night, keeping vigil until the moment she awakened. She was resting again when I saw her, this time without the use of sedatives. Her mother agreed that her sleep is good for her body's healing.
As Proverbs 127:2 says, "[God] gives His beloved sleep." I am thankful to pass on this encouraging news to you today and hope it lifts your spirits, as it did mine.
(This blog was co-authored by Shevet volunteers Kristina Kayser and Liliya Semenyuk.)
On our way to the hospital, we received a phone call from Stephanie, who had been in the hospital all morning: "She's being taken now." What?! Five minutes later, I (Liliya) was rushing towards Asma's room, almost crashing right into her as I rounded a corner. "Lily!!" "Asma!!" We hugged in relief, and I saw her for 30 more seconds before she was whisked into the ICU for pre-op procedures, including anesthesia. That was half past noon, though she didn't go for surgery until just after two.
The hospital staff wasted no time in rushing Asma to the OR, not even pausing for us to get a good look at her. As soon as the automatic doors shut to the surgery unit, we could do nothing but go back to wait. Many mothers prefer stationing themselves in the ICU waiting room, but today's warm weather was too lovely to pass up. We (Kristina, Liliya, Asma's mother, Hawre, and Hawre's mother) went outside to sit in the hospital garden and enjoyed the afternoon sunshine and each others' company for the next hour and a half.
Whether it was learning Kurdish, talking about life, drawing, or teaching them to make a balloon dog, the laughter and friendship were clearly medicine for the soul for Asma's mother. Her mind seemed more at ease as her burden was shared by friends. Afterwards, Aryan's mother even convinced her to eat lunch and drink some tea. As the waiting continued, I (Kristina) noticed Asma's mother gently fingering a colorful string of beads. As she silently prayed, the beads moved through her hands one by one. Telephone calls, meanwhile, steadily streamed in. Prayers continued uninterrupted.
Asma's mother had just asked if we could check on Asma's status when she suddenly rounded the corner to be wheeled into the ICU just after 5 pm. The tears spilled freely over her mother's cheeks in relief at seeing her daughter post-op, albeit intubated and unconscious. I hugged her and said, "Praise God! He heard your question before you even spoke it! He loves you!" She nodded her head and smiled. After another full hour and a half, entrance was finally granted into ICU.
Our first glimpse of Asma was difficult because she was fighting the sedation and mildly thrashing about. Her mother attempted to soothe her as she struggled to stay awake, begging for water. Much to her mother's dismay, the nurse pleaded her not to touch her anymore, so that Asma's sleep would not be hindered. It wasn't until stronger IV sedation was given that Asma fell into peaceful slumber. The medical report is as follows: a full repair of the VSD was made as well as the right ventricle's double chamber corrected. The surgery went without complication and she will remain in ICU until further stabilized.
There is much to be thankful for. While Asma's mother is still carrying the weight of past tragedies, she is also rejoicing in today's triumph. Each moment, each breath, each beat of Asma's new heart is a reminder that life is a gift.
“Hwa-afeece!” I gingerly said, as I looked deep into Asma's darkened eyes. “You’re leaving already?” and she burst into sobs. All I could do was hug her tight, not wanting to let go, feeling her hot tears soak through my jacket, as I attempted to hold mine back. It’s been just a week, but she’s grown on me. She’s like the little sister I never had.
Asma has been admitted to the hospital this evening for surgery tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon. This young woman comes across as very composed and mature in the way she carries herself back at home in Jerusalem. Here in the hospital, as the layers came off, I began to see the little girl that she is. Though she flitted around like a little bird at our arrival, looking for Aryan, the wings began to shorten as her turn came up to lay on the table for an IV port insertion. Interested in the medical field, she bravely turned to watch the needle go in. Noticing the flinch and apprehension, the nurse asked her to turn away.
Asma squeezed her eyes shut and squirmed as blood dripped into the prepared test tubes. Before long, it was all over, and she allowed herself to laugh.
Soon she was settled on her bed, avoiding my eyes, staring off into space. What could I say? My Kurdish vocabulary is very low, but even so, what could I say? The pensive stare into nothingness broke into a smile only when she received a phone call from home. Too soon it was time to say goodbye, hug her tight, tell her how much I love her, and… you know the rest.
Asma’s mother appeared well-composed for the whole ordeal, but I can only imagine what is boiling inside. Will she be saying goodbye for the final time to her daughter tomorrow afternoon, as she said goodbye to an older daughter 3 years ago who passed away after heart surgery? Please pray for God’s grace.
The more I get to know this delightful thirteen-year-old, the more I see how lovely Asma is. She seems to be on that defining line between young woman and little girl. Trying very much to look and act grown-up in demeanor and dress, I can still catch glimpses of her child heart. Today was her first visit to Wolfson Hospital for preliminary tests and assessments. With this came a wave of fear and concern from both she and her mother. As mentioned in a previous blog, Asma has already lost two sisters to heart complications. The weight of family tragedy was fresh on their minds. As vital signs were being measured, I noticed her sitting quietly, deep in thought, and I wondered how she was processing everything. The only thing which made her cry was the very unpopular syringe assigned to draw blood for lab work. Hot tears ran down her cheeks. When I told her it was all over, she quickly composed herself once more.
Scattered throughout the day were stretches of sitting and waiting, but no matter to Asma. She took this as an opportunity for an impromptu school session. With notebook and pen in hand, she wrote down as many new words as possible from our English and Chinese-speaking volunteers. I love her curious mind, always probing and seeking! Her aspirations to become a pediatric cardiologist are well matched with her passion to learn. Another aversion came in the form of Pomadora, Wolfson's clown in residence. Asma laughed shyly as she snuck up beside her for a picture.
The final and most important examination of the day was an echocardiogram (echo). Dr. Alona and another doctor treated her with such sweet affection and gentleness. I believe this helped ease any fears of the day still remaining in her heart. The echo confirmed Asma's diagnosis of a VSD and a Double Chamber Right Ventricle (DCRV). The VSD is a breach between the two lower chambers of her heart that will be surgically sealed. The second problem lies in the fact that her lower right ventricle (chamber) has an unnecessary layer of muscle that will need to be re-sectioned. Dr. Alona stated with confidently that her diagnosis is not complicated and that "her surgery will be straightforward." Praise God for this good news! Both Asma and her mother looked relieved and happy when I conveyed the report, as if a burden had been lifted from their shoulders.
Time will tell when Asma will undergo open heart surgery, and we pray it will be soon. Her last question of the day was why the incision would be at the center of her chest rather than to the left where her heart is situated. Before I could respond, her mother stepped in and provided an answer that left her content. May Asma's curiosity continue to enrich her life with mystery, and wonder, and beauty.
Everything felt new. The shops, the harpist in the streets, the train in the distance, the artwork, the various smells of food coming from small shops... Asma, Hawre, and their mothers brought to us a fresh pair of eyes, a new perspective, to the Jerusalem street we've walked on many times.
Their joy of being beyond the walls of Shevet for the first time quickly infected us too, and the carefree laughter gave us much ease. Whether it was Kristina singing through the snapdragons, Sophie learning to count in Kurdish, or me getting in trouble for touching a unique flower for sale, we found plenty to laugh about. The experience can be likened to baby birds learning to fly on their own, as we gently nudged them out of the nest to be free to explore on their own.
We then took the two families out for some cookies and tea, ultimately spending quite a bit of time in the cafe, as they relayed bits and pieces of their preparation for Israel. By the time we left, the moon was out. A fresh wave of giggles overtook us as Kristina accidently added a syllable, effectively calling the full moon a "cow," which Hawre relayed to us with a deep mooo.
We took a "shortcut the long way" through a park to get home, because they said they weren't ready to go yet. Well, we weren't quite sure what their reaction would be to a small playground meant for young kids – but soon the inner child came out in all of us, laughter filling the brisk evening air as dusk came upon us. The walls are breaking down. They have accepted us into their hearts. I feel it is a privilege to be accepted as a friend and a daughter and a sister.
Tomorrow both Hawre and Asma are going in for their first echo, and to the extent that I understand, there is some fear. Please pray for peace.