Heart of the matter: Grad’s nonprofit gives back to Iraqi children

HeartStory1 FTW
By Emily Ballard

Nothing — not even the dangers of war — could stop Truett Seminary graduate Jeremy Courtney from moving to Iraq in 2007. Co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization Preemptive Love Coalition, Courtney’s life changed course while visiting a friend in Iraq during the middle of the war.

One day, while Courtney was sitting in a cafe he frequented while visiting the country, an Iraqi man approached him and asked if there was anything Courtney could do for a little girl who had a hole in her heart, Courtney said at Baylor’s Chapel service this past week.

“No, there’s nothing I can do for you,” he told the Iraqi man.

Courtney said the Iraqi man replied, “‘No one comes to Iraq in the middle of war with his wife and daughter to say ‘no’ to people.’”

Courtney said seeing the 6-year-old girl with big brown eyes pushed him to action.

“All I saw was my little girl walking into that café,” he said. “Was there anything I wouldn’t do to save my little girl?”

Courtney said he promised the Iraqi man he would try to help, even though he had no knowledge of heart surgery, almost no money and limited knowledge of Iraq, Courtney said.

Soon after their encounter, Courtney made a trip to the local bazaar and bought shoes that local Iraqis had been making with the same technology for 3,000 years. He brought the shoes back to the U.S. to sell in hopes of raising enough money for the young girl’s heart surgery, Courtney said. When Courtney’s shoe business raised enough money for the girl’s surgery, word of the life-saving help the little girl received spread quickly in Iraq.

“Soon the list was thousands of kids long, waiting for heart surgeries,” he said.

Preemptive Love Coalition partners with a number of American medical groups to recruit volunteers to make trips to Iraq to train the local medical staff. For Hearts and Souls, a San Antonio company, offers diagnosis and heart catheterization tools and development ideas, while The International Children’s Heart Foundation sends doctors and nurses to carry out the heart surgery training, said Matt Willingham, press secretary for Preemptive Love Coalition.

Willingham joined Courtney’s team in Iraq in 2011. He met Courtney at Woodway Baptist Church in Waco while studying finance at Baylor as an undergraduate.
The massive number of children in need of heart surgery in Iraq — around 11,000 added to the list each year — puzzled Courtney and after some research, he began to unravel the source of the problem. Preemptivelove.org outlines the three main suspects.

The primary suspect is Saddam Hussein’s use of mustard gas on Iraqis. Over the past 20 years, he led an alleged 40 chemical attacks on his own people, and the chemicals ingested by the survivors were passed down and led to birth defects — one being holes in the heart.

Secondly, weapons used by U.S. and U.K. forces in the First Gulf War contained depleted uranium that left toxic chemicals that caused mutations in the offspring of Iraqis living during the First Gulf War.

The third suspected cause is U.N. sanctions on Iraq in 1990. The sanctions limited medical attention in Iraq and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis became malnourished.

Malnourished pregnant women are much more likely to give birth to children with congenital birth defects. When the organization began doing surgeries, children were sent to Turkey and Israel for their surgeries.

“But we realized we’re not really benefitting Iraqi nurses and doctors,” Willingham said.

As of August 2010, all surgeries provided by Preemptive Love Coalition for children with heart defects have been performed in Iraq.

“Other cities heard about it and asked if we would please, please come,” Willingham said.

Instead of insisting Iraqi healthcare facilities accept the training of American doctors and nurses, Preemptive Love Coalition waits for them to contact the organization at their own will, Willingham said.

Dr. Munaf Ahmed is a cardiac surgeon from Basrah, Iraq who was trained by American doctors who came to Iraq to train through International Children’s Heart Foundation. Once he realized the shortage of cardiac surgeons in Iraq, he switched gears from orthopedics to the heart and has been performing pediatric cardiac surgeries since November 2011.

“I found the field of cardiac is more interesting to deal with people’s hearts. I mean it’s beautiful to treat the love center of the human being,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Lariat.

Doctors, nurses and Preemptive Love Coalition employees work hard to help Iraqi children and must constantly overcome obstacles to deliver quality medical care, Courtney, Willingham and Ahmed said.

Preemptive Love Coalition is headquartered in Sulaymaniyah, a predominately Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Willingham said the region is fairly safe, as is their location in Bosra in southern Iraq.

The danger and violence of Central Iraq make that region the most in need of help but the most difficult to deliver help. Preemptive Love Coalition’s program in Fallujah, for example, has been put on hold.

“Ironically, the city that needs it the most isn’t getting attention,” he said.

During training, sometimes the operating staff runs into sticky situations like disputes between the Iraqi surgeons and nurses about the technicalities of surgery, Willingham said.

“The reality is with the training we do, we’re going to have mortalities,” he said.

The organization also faces the possibility of being kicked out of a region because the region must cut expenses, Willingham said. He expressed his frustration with being kicked out a particular region after learning that area’s dialect.

Preemptivelove.org states that Courtney and his team have been confronted with death threats, imprisonments and bombings.

Willingham explained how the strong-man mentality of Saddam Hussein trickled down into the healthcare system. He said one man often feels he must run the hospital, trying to manage bills and scheduling on top of surgeries.
The socialized Iraqi medical system keeps doctors and nurses from being fired, keeps their salaries unsubstantial, and many nurses only have a middle school education, Willingham said, which all contribute to them having little incentive to do their job well.

“How do you get a fire under them?” Willingham said. “It’s just tough.”
Ahmed undoubtedly has that fire under him. He said despite the long, grueling hours of surgery and post-operation care and low salary, helping give the children normal lives and seeing the grateful faces of their families gives him great pleasure.

“It’s amazing to put an end to the miseries of those kids,” he said.

The hurdles of the organization are matched by the rewards of their dedication to the people of Iraq.

Ahmed said Iraqi families have welcomed the organization with mutual respect and admiration. Local doctors and Preemptive Love Coalition workers even share meals and gifts sometimes, he said.

In Courtney’s speech at Baylor’s Chapel service, he said he has witnessed the coming together of many diametrically opposed groups of people.

Sunni and Shia Muslims, Kurds and Arabs and Muslims and Christians have joined forces to help save children’s lives, he said.
Willingham explained how Preemptive Love Coalition’s work serves as a peacemaking opportunity between Americans and Iraqis.

“We show up in a village and they say, ‘You’re the first Americans we’ve seen without guns’.”

After Ahmed met Willingham at the Basrah cardiac center, they began a good friendship and Ahmed helped him get familiar with the demographics of different Iraqi regions, Ahmed said.

“The most important thing for us is Iraqis treating their compatriots,” Willingham said. “Iraq is not self-sufficient in a lot of areas, one of them being healthcare. We want them to be able to stand on their own feet.”

Ahmed now works in Amarah, Iraq alongside Preemptive Love Coalition, establishing a health center and giving back the training to the locals that he received from American surgeons.

“I worked hard for three different cities and thank God I accomplished two centers and the third one on the way,” he said. “Sometimes hard working keeps me for along time away, but I am sure that saving those kids makes my family proud of me.”

Courtney explained to Baylor students the meaning of preemptive love.

“We jump forward to love our enemies before they hurt us,” he said. Courtney said with preemptive loves comes a willingness to lay your life on the line for someone else.
“Preemptive Love Coalition means to me the slit in the wall shining a lot of light,” Ahmed said. “They are few in number but their effect covers [the] whole Iraq. They are full of hope and love.”