It’s Monday Morning; That’s Good News

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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Every Monday morning, Norma Fayad of the Pontifical Mission in Lebanon takes off for the mountain town of Bhannes and its hospital center – a campus of red-roofed buildings. Last winter these red tiles were often covered with snow. The road was slippery and wet, the trip, less than pleasant. But for the families that Norma meets, Monday mornings almost always bring good news.

Halos are an everyday sight at Bhannes Hospital, a medical center run by the Daughters of Charity in the foothills above Beirut. Christian and Muslim patients “wear” them as part of the treatment for respiratory problems resulting from scoliosis, curvature of the spine.

Receiving a halo requires the intervention of a surgeon. The device consists of four steel pins; two inserted above the temples and two toward the back of the head. Attached is a stainless steel band that runs around the head, which creates a halo. It provides traction for the spine and relief to a crushed respiratory system. Before treatment became available, people suffering from severe scoliosis died by their early 20s.

Only in the last 10 years have Lebanon’s trained surgeons and therapists understood scoliosis. In the past, scoliotic children were hidden, often restrained. Families seeking medical attention encountered doctors with medieval attitudes. “Take the child home; he’ll die soon anyway,” said many doctors. “This is from God. There is nothing you can do.”

Dr. Khalil Kharrat, an orthopedic surgeon at Bhannes, sees many children between 10 and 13.

“Parents bring the children when they can no longer carry them,” he explains. He also sees much higher degrees of deformity in children under 10 than he did in France or in the United States where he trained. The most extreme case he has dealt with is a 14-year-old girl whose degree of deformity was 180; X-rays show her chest pressing into her pelvic area. She just recently endured a corrective operation and is now recuperating from her surgery. And she is back in her halo as part of the postoperative therapy.

Some patients “grow” almost five and a half inches during the operation, but on the average surgery adds an inch or two. Dr. Kharrat enjoys telling of one young girl’s reaction to herself, “It was the first time I could see myself in the mirror!”

Sophie Akiki’s scoliosis was discovered early. Her grandmother noticed how at six months the child could not sit up. Baths became dangerous. Later, the child showed no interest in prewalking activities. At 18 months the bright-eyed bundle still does not walk.

In the child’s playpen a notebook catches the child’s eye more often than her doll; she eagerly repeats the ABC’s with her mother, a teacher. The parents knew there was nothing wrong with Sophie mentally regardless of the doctors’ opinions. “Min hakim le hakim – from doctor to doctor,” the parents say in Arabic as they relate their tale of seeking medical advice.

“She’s going to be a dwarf,” one doctor told the family. Wisely they sought a more professional opinion as their fears grew over their firstborn’s condition.

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Tags: Lebanon Children Health Care Funding