A Lifeline Abroad for Iraqi Children

Capt. Jonathan Heavey, a Walter Reed surgeon, center, and Capt. John Knight, a physician assistant, right, created Hope.MD while serving in Baghdad.
Capt. Jonathan Heavey, a Walter Reed surgeon, center, and Capt. John Knight, a physician assistant, right, created Hope.MD while serving in Baghdad. (By Ernesto Londono -- The Washington Post)
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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

BAGHDAD -- A couple of months after Capt. Jonathan Heavey, a Walter Reed Army Medical Center physician, arrived in Baghdad, an Iraqi doctor handed him the medical file of a 2-year-old boy with a life-threatening heart ailment. The doctor said the boy couldn't get the care he needed in Iraq.

Heavey decided to help. He e-mailed a copy of the child's electrocardiogram and other information to a former colleague at the University of Virginia, who agreed to treat the boy for free. Then Heavey began the many-layered process of applying for U.S. visas for the boy and a female guardian. Among other things, Heavey had to provide proof that the guardian wasn't pregnant. Two months into the process, the boy died.

"It was pretty crushing," said Heavey, a 33-year-old battalion surgeon assigned to the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. "It was incredibly disappointing to know there are academic facilities back home willing and able to help. But there were just too many logistical hurdles."

Appalled by the state of Iraq's health-care system and frustrated by rules preventing military doctors from treating Iraqis, Heavey and a colleague, Capt. John Knight, 36, began arranging for sick Iraqi children to receive free medical treatment abroad. During their year-long deployment, which ended last month, they created a nonprofit organization that has sent 12 children overseas for medical care, funded by $17,000 that Heavey and Knight have contributed from their own pockets and raised from family and friends.

Heavey, who is so polite and soft-spoken that he seems out of place among gruff infantrymen, and Knight, 36, a physician assistant, worked at a small aid station inside the high walls of Forward Operating Base Justice, a U.S. military base in the Kadhimiyah section of northern Baghdad.

Late last year, they visited a hospital where malnourished and neglected children rescued from an orphanage were being treated. A U.S. Army civil affairs unit had visited the orphanage and discovered children lying naked on the floor, surrounded by excrement. The plight of the children, some of whom had cholera, drew media attention in the United States and elsewhere.

Heavey and Knight, who both have young children, were haunted by what they had seen.

One day, as they worked out in the outpost's windowless gym, the pair decided to start an organization. They had their doubts: Maybe there would be mounds of red tape and cultural barriers to overcome. Maybe they'd be able to help no more than a handful of kids. Maybe it wouldn't work at all.

But as Knight later explained it: "We want to help people. We still really believe in what we do."

When they floated the idea around FOB Justice, many of their superiors and colleagues rolled their eyes. Then they approached military lawyers to ask whether, as Defense Department employees, they could solicit contributions.

"They were flippant about it," Knight said. "They didn't think it was going to go anywhere."

From that point, Heavey and Knight spent every spare minute on the organization. They lugged their laptops along on missions so they could work on their project during downtime. They spent hours downloading documents using the outpost's maddeningly slow Internet connection. They reached out to nonprofits and sent e-mails to friends, acquaintances and friends of friends asking for help.

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