VA Black Hills Health Care System
Dr. Kumar on 3rd Tour of Duty
For 13-year-old Afghan girl, Safoora, a new opportunity at life is one gift that came just in time for the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha. Suffering from a tumor in the middle of her brain, Safoora was able to get the surgery she needed to remove the life-threatening mass.
While the holiday of Eid al-Adha is similar to that of Christmas for Americans, Safoora's gift did not come from a jolly, fat man in a red suit, but rather two men wearing green camouflage.
Col. Ashok Kumar, a physician, and Capt. Regan Norgaard, a physician’s assistant, both deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan, with the 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, South Dakota Army National Guard, coordinated the surgery Safoora needed in order to have a chance at living a healthy and normal life.
"I am very thankful for Col. Kumar and Capt. Norgaard and their efforts to help my daughter," said Ishmael Mohammad, Safoora's father. "I am hopeful she will live a long and happy life."
Mohammad, an Afghan worker at Camp Phoenix, brought Safoora to the 196th's brigade surgeon's office in October after she began exhibiting symptoms of dizziness, headaches and difficulty concentrating in school.
"We knew she had a tumor removed in June 2008 in Pakistan," said Kumar, of Rapid City, S.D. "The father told us the doctor who performed the surgery had died since and was wondering if there was anything we could do to ease the suffering of his daughter."
Through a non-Department of Defense volunteer program called Operation Outreach Afghanistan, Safoora was able to receive assistance for her first surgery.
The OOA program is a humanitarian organization that provides assistance to needy Afghan families through donations of money, clothing, school and medical supplies. The program also provides medical assistance to Afghan children with special needs by referring them to hospitals in Kabul, neighboring countries or even in the United States.
"After Safoora's first surgery in 2008, she recovered well and exhibited no problems until June 2010 when she started to have headaches and dizziness," said Kumar, a 20-year employee of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Sturgis, S.D. "A scan of Safoora's brain done in June at a NATO military hospital in Kabul showed a mass in the same area of her previous surgery."
"The doctors at the coalition hospital said her life was in danger and without surgery soon, she would most likely die," added Norgaard, of Brookings, S.D. "Unfortunately, the surgery she needed could not be performed anywhere in Afghanistan due lack of medical resources – we needed to look at other options."
With limited time, options and money to pay for a second surgery, Mohammad was only hoping Kumar and Norgaard could do something to make Safoora's last days as comfortable as possible. However, Kumar and Norgaard were not going to settle with only treating her pain.
Using some monetary donations from OOA, along with their own financial resources and medical contacts, Kumar and Norgaard acted quickly to try and make arrangements to save Safoora's life. Kumar, who was born and raised in India, contacted his cousin who arranged for her medical care at a university hospital in India.
While Kumar made the necessary arrangements with a neurosurgeon in India, one of the best in the country, Norgaard made the travel arrangements to get Safoora and her father there.
On Oct. 29, Safoora's second brain surgery was conducted, and a few weeks later, Safoora and her father returned to Afghanistan where Kumar said she seems to be recovering very well.
"I'm so thrilled Safoora didn't have any complications, infection or significant brain damage and she is functioning like a normal child," said Kumar, after a recent examination. "She’s completely without any neurological deficiencies and her memory is pretty good. We are hopeful she will not have any reoccurrence of the tumor."
While Kumar and Norgaard are happy to help Safoora as medical professionals, both of them wanted to help for other reasons.
"As a doctor, you are a part of a team to save a life under normal circumstances. This experience is different in a personal way," said Kumar. "The first time I saw Ishmael, I was looking at a father who loved his daughter and had not given up – given the dire circumstances.
"As a father myself, I thought about how much I love my daughter," continued Kumar, who is married with two children. "He came into my office and said 'she is dying can you do anything?' – I had to do something."
"It feels really great to help children like Safoora and help to make their life better," said Norgaard, an employee at the Sanford Health clinic in Brookings. "Being a part of the Operation Outreach program is so rewarding – it is something I will cherish about my deployment experience here."
For Kumar, helping Safoora and her father has also made an impact in other aspects.
"I always felt that being in Afghanistan, I am serving two countries at the same time – the country of birth and the country that adopted me as a citizen," said Kumar, a U.S. citizen for 20 years. "Doing something for the Afghans is helping in the COIN [counterinsurgency] operation of U.S. forces fighting the insurgents, and at the same time, contribute in a small way to India’s efforts that is fighting the same enemy."
It is making a difference said Kumar, many of the Afghans he sees around the camp and at the bazaars stop to thank him, "They are talking in the community and it’s raising our image," he said.
"For the last seven years I worked here on Camp Phoenix. My daughter got sick and I was thinking we are losing her – that she was going to die, but the U.S. Army helped my daughter," said Mohammad.
"I am very hopeful for her future. Her father said she was a very bright girl in school, and that’s one of the reasons why we are here – to help this country so that children, especially girls, can get an education," said Kumar, who is on his third deployment. "The people are tired of war; they want peace and a place for their children to grow up. To see just one child have this opportunity is all I need to make this deployment worth it."