A 6-year-old Afghan boy born with his bladder outside his body has been reunited with the U.S. soldier who arranged for his rare operation at a New Jersey hospital.
Army Maj. Glenn Battschinger of Mays Landing, N.J., was on foot patrol in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in April 2010 when he came across Muslam Hagigshah, a small, frail child who was bowlegged and held his leaking bladder in his hand. After military doctors and a German medical team were unable to correct the defect he'd had since birth, Battschinger arranged for an Egyptian-born doctor to perform a series of operations.
Muslam's journey to get the care needed to live a normal life brought him from an impoverished community in eastern Afghanistan to an affluent suburb just outside New York City. At his new home, in Summit, N.J., his foster family taught him English and enrolled him in kindergarten.
At a ceremony Friday at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, a grinning Muslam was wheeled in from the hospital room where he's been recovering from a second surgery performed a week ago. As he beamed at the oversized chocolate cake marking his recovery, Muslam leaned forward in his wheelchair to tell reporters — in English — that his favorite sport is lacrosse, which his foster brother has been teaching him.
Hospital officials give credit to the New Jersey branch of Healing the Children, a nonprofit organization that donates medical care to children around the world. After being contacted by Battschinger in July 2010, the group contacted Saint Barnabas Medical Center and Dr. Moneer Hanna, a pediatric urologist who has performed more than 150 such procedures. Both agreed instantly to treat Muslam free of charge.
Three months later, Muslam landed at Newark Liberty International Airport.
Muslam's foster mother, Martha Oplinger of Summit, said now that the boy can communicate in English, he's been teaching the family about his own culture.
"We were driving to school one day and he said to me, 'You shouldn't be driving! You're a girl!'" Oplinger recalled.
Hanna thinks Muslam will recover and function normally. The abnormality Muslam was born with affects one in 40,000 babies, he said, but occurs more frequently in the Middle East than in the West.
Without surgery, Muslam could have developed kidney infections and had a shortened life span, Hanan said.
"There's nothing special about me and nothing special about what I've done," said Battschinger, who was assigned to a civil affairs unit charged with helping the Afghan government develop infrastructure and identify civilian needs in eastern Afghanistan.
Battschinger said humanitarian acts, such as getting treatment for Muslam, improves the image of the United States in countries wary of the West and helps reduce the spread of radical fundamentalism. He noted the powerful timing of his reunion with Muslam, coming just days after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader whose 2001 terrorist attacks prompted U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.
"The families and victims of September 11 would want to know about the compassionate side of this conflict," Battschinger said.
Battschinger plans to accompany the boy back to Afghanistan in four to six months, once his recovery is complete. The major will make the trip as a civilian and will help drill two water wells near Muslam's home in Jalalabad.
Josh Lederman can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/josh_lederman