Ethiopian Girl, 4, Is Brought to U.S. for Life-Changing Surgery

When you first glance at Samirawit Hallemariam – it’s almost impossible not to notice the growth protruding from the left side of her face.

But, after spending just a few moments with this spunky 4-year-old, all of that disappears, and instead you see the twinkle in her big brown eyes. What’s more, you see all of the strength she has mustered up in her short life.

Samirawit, or Sami, as her doctors call her, is from a rural village in Ethiopia where little or no medical care is available – an especially dire situation for her because she was born with a venous malformation – a condition, which if left untreated, can be deadly.

Fortunately, fate stepped in, and Sami was discovered by chance at a clinic in Israel by Michelle Sorscher, a nurse manager for Dr. Alejandro Berenstein, of the Vascular Birthmarks Institute of New York, who was in Tel Aviv at the time helping other children.

“Michelle came up and she said, ‘You've gotta see this kid.’ And we saw this beautiful, beautiful kid that has this significant problem, and we knew immediately what it was,” Berenstein, co-director of the institute and chief of Interventional Radiology at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center and Beth Israel Medical Center, told “Think of a venous malformation as varicose veins in the leg. It's different, but for you to understand, it's like imagine varicosities, a collection of blood vessels in the face, they cannot empty the blood so they keep expanding.”

Initially, Sami was brought to Israel on four different occasions for treatment, after she was introduced to Dell J. Russell, the founder of the non-profit organization, International Children's Outreach Network.

“The greatest thing of our country is that people, no matter their background, no matter their political behavior or whatever, is that we are a very philanthropic country and we try to help, and this wonderful man from Seattle, Wash., goes to Ethiopia and helps families and children and found this little girl,” Berenstein said.

It took a tremendous amount of work, but Sami was eventually brought to the U.S. in June for life-saving treatment, which meant she had to leave her family behind in Ethiopia.

It would be devastating for any child, but fortunately for Sami, Beverly Brandwine stepped in as her foster mother during her stay in the U.S.

“This is the fifth child that I've fostered, and they are all, I mean I obviously wouldn't do this if I didn't love it, but they've all just… they add so much to your life,” she said with emotion.

For the next two months, Brandwine and Sami were inseparable while she underwent treatments to get her ready for surgery.

Dr. Milton Waner, who is also working on Sami’s case, heads the Vascular Birthmarks Institute along with Berenstein.

“Venous malformations are very, very different from other lesions in that they are filled with huge blood vessels, and operating or attempting to do surgery on these children without any help is almost uniformly fatal because of the amount of blood loss in a short period of time could be massive,” Waner said.

In order to prevent this from happening, Waner and Berenstein combined their techniques.

“This is something new that we've innovated here in New York," Waner said. “We inject, or Dr. Berenstein injects sclerosants into the venous malformation and this causes clotting off of these big huge blood vessels, so once this is sufficiently clotted off, I can go in there and remove it."

The treatment, known as sclerotherapy, involves injecting a solution directly into a vein – causing it to scar and collapse. In Sami’s case, she underwent three sessions of injections to make sure there would be minimal blood loss during the removal of the mass.

On the morning of August 31, the time had finally come for surgery – and with one last hug from Brandwine – Sami was brought into the operating room.

The OR was buzzing with excitement, with several doctors coming into check in on the progress of the surgery, including Berenstein and Sorscher, who said she felt responsible for the well-being of this girl she helped bring from the other side of the world.

"It has been quite a journey, which could never have happened without all the people involved," Sorscher said.

In the end, it took a little more than three hours to remove the mass due to the sheer size of it, but everyone was incredibly happy with the results.

Waner spoke to moments after he finished the procedure.

“It went exceptionally well,” he said. “I believe I got the vast majority of it - well over 90 percent of it. She may have a residual disease under the skin, but it's not going to be a major problem and she's going to look fine. I shortened her upper lip in two vectors. I shortened it in the vertical and the horizontal vectors – so it has come to line nicely. I am very happy. The venous malformation is out and she's fine. I think she'll bounce right back."

That’s exactly what happened. Sami was released from the hospital the night after surgery and for the next few months, she’ll be watched closely to see if she will need any “nips and tucks” to bring symmetry to her face.

After that, the sky is the limit for this brave little girl.

"I would like Sami to go back to Ethiopia, and I would like her to go to school. She is very bright,” Brandwine said. “I have so much respect for these kids. To learn a new language… it's just incredible what they go through... but they get to go home to a new life.”

Click here for more information about the International Children’s Outreach Network.