Non-Profit, Q + A

Healing Hearts in the Midst of Horror

Preemptive Love
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IRAQ―Preemptive Love Coalition provides lifesaving heart surgeries for Iraqi children in pursuit of peace between communities at odds. By training locals, they are committed to giving Iraqi doctors the tools and expertise they need to serve their own children. This is about dignity over dependence, hope over handouts. For years now, Iraqis have been trained to believe help comes from outside the country, but Preemptive Love is committed to making Iraqis the ultimate heroes as they become the solution their children so desperately need. Journonews caught up with Preemptive Love Coalition’s Communication Director, Matthew Willingham, currently  in Iraq.

How did you personally become involved in Preemptive Love Coalition?

I followed their work while in college and admired their ethos and approach to caring for people. I also admired their desire to work where few others were willing to go, so my wife and I visited in 2010 and moved to Iraq shortly thereafter.

What are the biggest challenges facing Preemptive Love Coalition right now?

Working in Iraq is a pretty big challenge in-and-of-itself, even when extremist groups and sectarian militias aren’t destroying the country. Navigating security, partnerships, finances and just dealing with culture in an ever-changing climate like this one can be exhausting, but the vision keeps us going. Of course, for many of our staff there’s also the day-to-day challenge of living in Iraq, which is obviously much different from our home countries.

What keeps you in the job?

Yesterday, I sat with a family who fled ISIS militants in northern Iraq. Their story was harrowing, but they told me they have hope for the first time knowing their son is about to get surgery after 13 years of waiting. He should’ve gotten his operation before he turned four years old. Seeing the family tear up and then sitting with them in the ICU after their boy’s heart was fixed—moments like that keep me going.

What difference is Preemptive Love Coalition making in Iraq?

Great question. There is significant quantifiable impact, like nearly a thousand heart operations for Iraqi children provided, tens of thousands of hands-on training hours logged, and over 3,000 children treated, but it’s the personal stories that get me most excited. There are people here who felt a certain way about another group, maybe considering them an ‘enemy’, but a lifesaving surgery for their child resulted in a new perspective. Watching that happen over and over again is perhaps the most exciting impact for many of our staff. That’s why we intentionally have Shias serving Sunnis, Muslims serving Christians, Americans and Iraqis serving one another, and so on. I absolutely believe we’ve made an impact in countless communities across this country for the better. I’ve seen it many times.

How do local Iraqi doctors and medical staff get to hear about Preemptive Love Coalition and apply to be trained?

I can’t respond to this without praising our partners: Living Light International, the International Children’s Heart Foundation and For Hearts & Souls. We’ve worked closely with each of these groups to launch and maintain these training programs. Practically speaking, a lot of it was also word-of-mouth with doctors hearing about something happening in a nearby city and saying “Hey, could you come do that here?”

How severe is the current heart surgery backlog and what is being done to alleviate it?

It’s severe. The international doctors with whom we work estimate it’s massive, though I’m hesitant to give a number because we don’t have any concrete lists. There is debate over whether or not Iraqi children are born with heart defects more often than in other countries, but the fact still remains: Iraq has almost no pediatric cardiac care to speak of, which means the backlog is growing. The government can only send so many children out of the country for surgery. The real long-term solution (which the government has now recognized through our programs) is training for Iraqi doctors. There are other groups—Italians, Indians, Turks—who are doing something similar to what we started with training. I’d say that’s one of the best things being done to alleviate this problem.

What is the profile of your average patient?

It varies a lot. I’m in a hospital down in southern Iraq right now, and the ICU currently has three infants, a 9 year-old, a 10 year-old, a 16 year-old, and a 2 year-old. Many of these children should have received surgery much earlier, but they’ve just had to wait.

Can you relay a touching success story relating to the type of surgery you perform?

I’ve attached a photo of Zahraa. This little double-chinned beauty is our miracle baby. After being rejected by several other surgeons, our doctors decided to take a chance on her. Zahraa has two very complex heart defects. Just having one of these defects would be difficult to repair, but our partner surgeon, Dr. Bill Novick, successfully operated on her after a 12 hour-long procedure. Local doctors are still in awe of it because they assumed she had no chance. She still needs another operation, which will be risky, but several here call her ’the fighter’ because she just keeps defying the odds. She’s lived in the hospital for most of her life now, and she’s become like family to many of the ICU staff. But we still look forward to the day when she can finally go home.

In what ways can someone reading this article practically help Preemptive Love Coalition to continue its work?

Donate. I know that’s blunt, but it’s just reality: surgeries continue happening here because people around the world chose to give. Iraq is in a crisis, and with the government reforming and figuring out finances, we’ve made an urgent appeal to our supporters for donations to supplement what the government hasn’t been able to provide. There is still a lot of need. If you want to be a part of remaking Iraq one child at a time, please donate.