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Tuesday, July 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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As Iraqi boy steals hearts, doctors ponder next step

Seattle Times staff reporter

He lugs around a stuffed cat and stubbornly refuses most things, including eggs for breakfast and a 9 p.m. bedtime. Despite the difficulties that come with being 3 in a world of adults who like to keep schedules and insist on good nutrition, Muhammed Hussein gives hugs and kisses like he's campaigning for Election Day.

Whether it's at the store or the doctor's office, "Hamoody" — a traditional nickname for Muhammed — listens for his name and waits for a touch, then extends his arms and plants a kiss. He scores another friend.

Hamoody — who came to Seattle from Iraq in May — still waits for the surgeries he needs to regain even a semblance of a normal life in his war-ravaged country. An ever-expanding team of doctors, overwhelmed by the damage wrought by a bullet to the little boy's face, eyes and sinuses, mull over just where to start. Rebuild the sinuses? Try to restore some eyesight? Work on the thick scars that distort his face? Start the bone grafts so he can eventually use a glass eye in place of his missing eye?

Although he has an engaging smile and a charm that melts hearts, the little boy's face is a mishmash of thick scars — the Iraqi surgeons' attempts to close the gaping wounds. He has only one eye and it is filmy and has no sight.

"It would have been nice to put him to sleep, fix a few scars and give him some vision back, but that's not the way it's going to be," said plastic surgeon Dr. Wayne Larrabee.

Hamoody, who is Shiite, was shot in the face in May 2005 while riding in a car with relatives after visiting family in a Sunni neighborhood north of Baghdad. His uncle was killed and other relatives were seriously injured, including Hamoody's mother, who was shot in the head and is still hospitalized in Iraq.

Having exhausted the limited medical help available in Iraq and neighboring Iran, a relative of Hamoody's contacted Healing the Children, a nonprofit devoted to matching children in need of medical help with volunteer doctors and hospitals in the U.S. On May 17, Hamoody moved into the home of Randy and Julie Smith and their daughters in Snohomish, and met Larrabee and eye surgeon Thomas Gillette.

Since then, he's become accustomed to a vastly different life than he knew in Iraq, where he shared a house with 19 relatives in a poor neighborhood that was too dangerous for children to play outside, and where even going to school meant risking kidnap or murder.

Hamoody is "typical of war-injured children," in that the damage he suffered is severe, said Larrabee, who has treated children injured in violence in Croatia during the 1990s.

Gillette remains uncertain whether surgery will restore any of Hamoody's sight — something that terrifies the boy's uncle, Adil Joda, in Iraq. It also concerns Iraq-born Raffi Ohanian, Swedish Medical Center's nursing resource staffer, who has volunteered to translate Hamoody's Arabic for doctors. Ohanian has become personally attached to the little boy.

"Back home he's ruined if you can't do something" to restore his eyesight, Ohanian told Gillette on the day Hamoody underwent a thorough examination under anesthesia.

On a recent day at a follow-up appointment in Larrabee's office, Ohanian brought Hamoody a large stuffed bear.

"Oh my goodness!" Hamoody said as he felt the toy's size and fur. Then he dragged it through the office, kabonking the heads of several people in the waiting room. The Smiths suppressed a laugh when Ohanian told them what Hamoody had said in Arabic:

"They make me eat all the time and I don't like it." He added protests over getting immunizations because the nurse "took the meat right off." He pointed to his arm.

Randy Smith calls the little boy "Hamoody La" (la is Arabic for "no"), since he's a typical 3-year-old who has just learned the not-so-fine art of refusal.

The boy also needs treatment for sleep apnea, a condition that causes him to stop breathing. So many doctors have been consulted about his problems, it's hard to know who will start first, what test should happen and when, doctors say.

Joda cannot imagine life in Iraq for Hamoody without sight. He would not be able to go to school, even though he is exceptionally bright, and there are few services for people with any kind of disability.

In the meantime, Hamoody is picking up more English and has wiggled his way deep into the Smiths' hearts. Julie Smith is "Auntie" and Randy Smith "Unclie," a Smith family name for uncle.

There are good days — ones where they go to the store — and bad — when they go to the doctor.

"Nice doctor," Julie Smith told him as they sat in Larrabee's office. Hamoody finally stopped crying and Larrabee, a father of five, picked him up and told the Smiths that he wanted to do what was best for Hamoody.

Suddenly Hamoody shouted a new word: "Exactly!"

Hamoody is especially bonded with Julie Smith, who jumps out of bed at the least whimper any time of the night and runs to him wherever he is any time of day. Since he can't see, he calls to her if he cannot hear her voice.

She, too, dreads the time he must return to Iraq — though no one knows when that will be — and hopes that it will be with some vision.

Once, in his own limited way, Hamoody took her hand and placed it on the scars on his face and said to her, "Ow, ow, ow."

"I know," she said.

And then he added: "Pray."

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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