Indonesian Girl to Have U.S. Surgery

The 8-year-old girl dressed in pink is in a hospital where she has been pricked with needles and had four teeth pulled. Her home, thousands of miles away, has been partly destroyed by an earthquake and probably won't be rebuilt by the time she returns to it. Yet, she is smiling.

"Because I will get surgery for my nose. And I would not see America if I did not get this surgery," said the little girl, whose beauty is marred by a giant bulge between her eyes that seems to swallow up her nose.

The post-tsunami earthquake in March that struck Nias Island (search) in Indonesia brought luck to Mawarni Zega (search). Had it not been for the earthquake, she might never have had the chance for surgery — set for Monday — to correct her severe facial deformity.

The earthquake that hit Nias, off the western coast of Indonesia's main island of Sumatra, came three months after the stronger quake that triggered the Dec. 26 tsunami. That disaster killed at least 175,000 people in 11 Indian Ocean nations, including Mawarni's country. The March quake killed about 900 people and left thousands injured and homeless.

Among the relief efforts was the Navy hospital ship Mercy, which was anchored off Nias' coast. Doctors traveled by helicopter to the city of Gunung Sitoli, to treat injured people arriving there for assistance. Among them were Mawarni and her mother, Adilia Zega, who were living in a tent.

Mawarni's mother approached the doctors about helping her daughter, whose birth defect is an encephalocele, caused when a gap in the skull allows brain membranes to protrude, creating an unsightly facial bulge. Potentially dangerous complications such as meningitis can occur if the condition is untreated. The doctors realized they could make a lasting difference in the girl's life.

Dr. Donald Van Nimwegen, the Seattle anesthesiologist who helped coordinate the effort to line up surgery for Mawarni, said it's not uncommon for relief workers to bring children from overseas to the United States for surgery, but personally knew of only one other Indonesian child. He said the Indonesians take pride in caring for their own people, and he viewed her case as a way to open a door for aiding more children who could be helped by U.S. medical technology.

Although many surgeries are performed on the USNS Mercy (search), Mawarni's deformity was too complicated, so an elaborate effort was made to bring her to the United States for the operation.

"Everybody told me it wouldn't get done, every step of the way, but then they would do extraordinary things to make it happen," Van Nimwegen said in a telephone interview from his home in Seattle.

Van Nimwegen coordinated arrangements with Healing the Children and Project Hope agencies, the Navy and the U.S. and Indonesian governments to bring Mawarni, her mother and an 18-year-old Indonesian interpreter to St. Louis where a neurosurgeon had volunteered to do the operation.

Mawarni is the youngest of 10 children from the village of Hilisebua, in the subdistrict of Gido. Her father is a rubber tree farmer. Her family's one-story, plaster home, was partially destroyed during the earthquake, her interpreter, Elwin Zebua explained.

Getting the girl to St. Louis required measures that were both low-tech _obtaining a letter from a village elder to get Mawarni a birth certificate — and high-tech — e-mails between teenagers, including Marwani's interpreter.

Back in St. Louis, others mobilized for Mawarni's visit.

"I have yet to have somebody say 'no,'" said pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Jeffrey Leonard, a Healing the Children volunteer who will be doing the operation with plastic surgeon Dr. Anna Kuang at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

Other medical staffers donated their time. A donor paid air fare for Mawarni, her mother and interpreter to get to St. Louis, and they've been given a free place to stay at YouthBridge, housing for patients from area hospitals.

Marwani's mother, Adilia, who has had a tough time with all the travel, said she wasn't worried about the surgery but has struggled with the many emotions she has felt in recent weeks.

"I will be very happy if Mawarni can look at her face and be pretty and have a clear future," she said.