LOS ANGELES – When 12-year-old Marwa Naim took off the bandage from her nose earlier this month, she smiled in a handheld mirror. Her face, damaged when a missile attack in Iraq caused her to lose part of her nose, was reconstructed.
On Monday, Naim showed off her face to others. Dressed in a light green burqa, she hugged and thanked the doctors who performed the operation and said she looked forward to reuniting with her father and three siblings in Iraq when she returns there later this month.
"They helped me a lot and they treated me well," Naim, speaking through an interpreter, said of the doctors.
Naim lost a chunk of her nose and her right thumb when a coalition missile struck her home in northern Baghdad in April 2003 in an attack that killed her mother, according to several humanitarian groups that arranged for the girl's trip to California.
This year, Naim was flown to UCLA Medical Center, where plastic surgeons agreed to rebuild her nose without pay. Doctors faced a daunting task: Naim was missing the bulbous tip of her nose and there was a lot of scar tissue from the injury.
During four operations, doctors removed a rectangular skin flap from her forehead and rotated it 180 degrees to fashion a new nose. Then they took cartilage from her ear to rebuild the tip and "to give it a shape," said Dr. Timothy Miller, chief of plastic surgery.
Miller showed a video of Naim's last visit earlier this month in which she took off the bandage from her nose and smiled into a handheld mirror. But she still faces a long recovery. Her face is swollen from surgery and there's a scar that runs down the middle of her forehead where doctors removed skin for the nose.
Although the scarring may never fully heal, it will likely take between six and nine months for the scars to lighten up, doctors said.
Miller described the surgery, which costs about $12,000, as cosmetic because Naim was never in danger of dying because of her missing nose. She could still breathe and smell normally, but doctors decided to fix it partly because she was taunted in school for her disfigurement.
"She's got a great spirit," Miller said.
While in the United States, Naim stayed with four Arabic-speaking host families in the Los Angeles area. She started learning English and visited tourists attractions including Universal Studios and SeaWorld.
Besides Naim, a handful of other war-wounded children have been flown by various humanitarian organizations to the U.S. for treatment of disfiguring injuries.
The nonprofit Palestine Children's Relief Fund, which paid for Naim's stay in California, estimated that since 1991, the organization has sought medical care for about 700 Middle Eastern children who suffer from mostly war-related injuries.
Plastic surgeon Dr. George Rudkin said he would welcome the chance to help another war victim. "It'll be an honor to do it again," he said.