Facing life-long paralysis, a 13-year-old Palestinian girl from the Gaza Strip regained her ability to breathe on her own following a successful surgery at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Suffern NY. A Jewish surgeon, Dr. Mark Ginsburg – a staff physician at the Catholic hospital – was assisted by Israeli surgeons at the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem to implant a phrenic nerve pacemaker for Maria Amman. The girl had been paralyzed from the neck down, unable to breathe without a ventilator since 2006.
The phrenic nerve pacemaking device enables electrical signals to be sent to Maria’s diaphragm, thus enabling her to respire on her own. Dr. Ginsburg (58) has performed the procedure at least 100 times in a number of different countries, including Brazil and Israel, and at Good Samarian Hospital in the United States. Only 50 of these life-saving procedures are performed each year. Since 2007, Dr. Ginsburg has operated about a half dozen times at Hadassah Medical Center on patients from Alyn Hospital and other Israeli hospitals. He met Maria in 2011 during one of his visits.
Dr. Ginsburg described Maria as a beloved girl. CNS wrote that he said, "She has a terrific smile. She wants to enjoy life. She understands what her limitations are, but she doesn't see them as limitations." The resourceful girl is able to control her wheelchair with her tongue, wheeling herself within the Hadassah intensive care unit before her surgery to ask how she could help the other patients. Maria likes to be a part of the action, said Dr. Ginsburg.
It was in 2006 that an Israeli missile destroyed Maria’s home and killed her mother and two brothers. Her bright smile has been the only way she could communicate with her caregivers. The then-6-year-old Maria sustained a C1 spinal cord injury, the most severe level of injury. After undergoing a tracheostomy to provide a secure airway, she was connected to a respirator. Maria could not speak at all until recently, and can now speak a little by using the air from the respirator that goes through her tracheostomy. She has been unable to smell anything since the initial incident and has hoped to one day smell the sea again.
Maria was under the care of Jerusalem’s Alyn Hospital, a facility that specializes in pediatric spinal cord and rehabilitation injuries, for the last six years. Her father was often at her side. The state of Israel is providing lifetime medical care and support for Maria, thus enabling her father to provide for her care. They have since moved to an apartment.
According to a report from Catholic News Service, Dr. Ginsburg averred that the outcome of Maria’s procedures was "terrific," while adding "The pacemaker was working beautifully when we left. She is a perfect candidate for this.
Because the muscles around Maria’s diaphragm had atrophied because of non-use, it will take some time for them to be rehabilitated. This process will probably take three months of progressive improvement for the muscles to regain their strength. At that time, Maria may be relieved of the respirator and the tracheostomy tube, eventually. By then, Maria should be able to speak freely.
Dr. Ginsburg plans to return to Jerusalem at the beginning of 2014 to examine Maria and attest to her improvement. Maria has now been discharged from hospital.
He said that even though Maria had been identified as ideal candidate for the phrenic nerve pacemaker, the girl had no insurance. At the time, Israel’s health care system had agreed to pay for it. The device alone costs about $70,000. Even though Dr. Ginsburg donates his services when he is Jerusalem, his patients incur ordinary hospital expenses. Good Samaritan Hospital underwrites his work. The hospital is part of the Bon Secours Charity Health System.
For its part, Avery Laboratories of New York – the manufacturer of the pacemaker – reduced the cost of the device, said Ginsburg. A charity operated by Avery allows for the external part of the device to be donated from patient to patient, when no longer needed. The Israeli government paid the remainder of costs related to the surgery.
Maria's father, a Palestinian, filed suit against the Israeli government to obtain health care coverage for his daughter. Israel’s Supreme Court awarded lifetime health services to Maria. He is now an Israeli citizen.
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.