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Afghan girl injured in war gets new arm - and lease on life

April 4, 2014

During an occupational therapy session Wednesday at Shriners Hospital for Children in Downtown Los Angeles, Shah Bibi carefully removed two snug rubber bands around a doll’s hair with her new prosthetic arm. She slowly tied the laces on a large shoe placed in front of her and struggled to jump rope with her occupational therapist.

But it was hitting a beach ball on a cone with a plastic baseball bat — which she did with ease and strength — that clearly thrilled the 7-year-old Afghan girl the most. Shah Bibi, whose last name is being withheld for her privacy and safety, lost part of her right arm and an eye after picking up a grenade last summer in her native, war-torn Afghanistan.

She was brought to Southern California in December by the Los Angeles-based Children of War Foundation to receive months of donated medical treatment. She will head back home Monday to reunite with her family.

The new arm “is really good for writing, and for hitting the ball, and for braiding the doll’s hair,” Shah Bibi, who has acquired a taste for American singers Rihanna and Katy Perry in recent months, said through a translator Wednesday. “I like it (overall) for what it is.”

Amel Najjar, executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Children of War Foundation, wasn’t sure this day would ever come.

She first heard of Shah Bibi’s plight after she received an email in August from an American nurse who was helping care for the girl at a NATO hospital in northern Kabul.

“When I look back at it now and I see her today, it’s incredible. It’s a miracle,” Najjar, said. “I felt like she’s meant to go on and do better things now, seeing her with her new arm. There’s a reason why she was spared... She’s going to go home completely transformed.”

Shah Bibi, who lost a sibling in last summer’s explosion and had to be dug out of the rubble, wanted more than anything else to have a new arm, Najjar said. When she arrived, doctors weren’t sure that fitting her with a prosthetic arm would be necessary since some people fare better without one. But Shah Bibi was so eager to have a new arm, she said. She wanted to feel normal.

“It’s brought her self-confidence back because we didn’t see her smile until she had her arm,” she said.

Shriners Hospital for Children picked up the tab for much of her medical care, including Shah Bibi’s prosthetic arm and accompanying occupational therapy; Dr. Mark Urata, chief of the division of plastic and reconstructive surgery of USC’s Keck School of Medicine, removed some shrapnel from her body and some infected teeth. Children of War picked up most of her other expenses, including her visa, airfare and anesthesia, Najjar said.

Shah Bibi was fitted with a somewhat low-tech prosthetic so if something breaks while she’s back home, it won’t be impossible to get it fixed, said Dr. Phoebe Scott-Wyard, medical director of the Child Amputee Prosthetics Project at Shriners Hospital for Children.

Children of War also hopes to bring her back to the United States regularly since she’s expected to outgrow the prosthetic about once a year.

The girl has been going through extensive training with occupational therapist Vivian Yip in recent weeks — first with a very short-term arm and now with a more long-term one — since she won’t have access to that in Afghanistan, Scott-Wyard said.

“She’s very motivated. She’s a sweet, sweet girl and it’s been a wonderful partnership with Children of War Foundation,” she said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Shah Bibi — who loves to color — used her new prosthetic arm in a private painting session with artist Dayvd Whaley at Galerie Michael, a fine-art space in Beverly Hills.

Shah Bibi has been staying with a host family in Orange County while recuperating and learning how to read and write English at an Islamic school in Anaheim that is donating its services. Since her remote village in northern Afghanistan is occupied by Taliban forces, who do not permit girls to study, this is an experience Shah Bibi would not have at home, Najjar said.

“Being able to read and write the past four months has really changed her,” she said. “It’s opened her mind up.”

Shah Bibi heads home to her family on Monday, though she will return to Southern California in coming summers for additional medical procedures, including receiving a prosthetic eye, Najjar said.

“I have a 2-year-old at home and I couldn’t imagine if this were to happen to him and we weren’t able to get the help,” she said.



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