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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Byline: Adrian Walker

Mar. 31--Fadhil Muammar is 17 months old, and yesterday he was screaming his lungs out in a crowded room at Massachusetts General Hospital. His company included his happy parents and a television crew, but his main interest seemed to be in playing with a plastic thermometer that he had discovered he could launch halfway across the room.

Fadhil is one of the few people whose life was saved by the tsunami that devastated his native Indonesia in December. The head injury he suffered while escaping the killer waves got him the medical attention he needed to solve a much more urgent problem.

As his mother Miswar put it, speaking through an interpreter, "It's like a dream, even better than a dream."

In escaping the tsunami, the baby had suffered a head wound. After his family was reunited, infection set in. The local doctors bandaged the cut and told his mother he would be fine.

But he wasn't fine, and she knew it. It wasn't just the head wound. For some time, she had noticed a swelling in his abdomen. It was big and growing. She had taken him to doctor after doctor, and none had been able to diagnose it.

The tsunami had brought one good thing to Banda Aceh: the USS Mercy, a US Navy ship that is, essentially, a floating 800-bed hospital. Along with the Navy personnel who typically staff it was a large group of volunteer doctors who had come in to help provide relief.

Miswar Muammar heard about the Mercy and the foreign doctors aboard and managed to get a referral from an Indonesian doctor, even though the doctor didn't see why she needed to go elsewhere for help.

The growth turned out to be a huge tumor on the baby's liver. Though benign, its sheer mass posed a danger to the organs around it and to Fadhil's life.

One of the doctors on the ship was Vicki Noble, an emergency room physician at Mass. General. Noble immediately recognized the severity of Fadhil's condition and the difficulty of treating it aboard the USS Mercy.

"The problem was that, given the surgical capabilities of the ship and the pediatric ICU capabilities, people didn't feel quite comfortable that it would go as smoothly as if we were back in the United States," Noble said yesterday.

Enter A. Raymond Tye.

To celebrate his 80th birthday a couple of years back, Tye, the chairman of United Liquors, one of the state's largest liquor distributors, had founded a medical foundation. After doctors and nurses were dispatched from MGH for tsunami relief, he made it known that he would be willing to contribute to medical costs, especially in a case that involved children. He was approached and agreed to pay for the liver surgery Fadhil needed, at a cost in the vicinity of $75,000.

Before the surgery could take place, there was one other complication to be negotiated, getting Fadhil and his parents out of Indonesia. There was no time to waste, because the ship was scheduled to leave in a matter of days. Through the efforts of Noble, a translator, and some compliant Indonesian and American bureaucrats, enough rules were bent to issue passports and visas in two days, and the group was ready to travel.

Fadhil's surgery took place at MGH on Monday, and where there was once a tumor the size of his head, now there is only a bandage. His prognosis, according to Noble, is excellent. His survival had been made possible by a mother's persistence and American generosity.

"I cannot repay with anything," Miswar said yesterday. "I hope God will pay a good deed, and all I can do is pray for all of you. I cannot express how grateful I feel."

There's a party planned in Fadhil's honor tomorrow, courtesy of the local Indonesian community. If all continues to go well, he could be out of the hospital in a week.

"I think he's going to grow into a troublesome teen who'll cause all kinds of havoc," Noble said yesterday. "Which is the point, I suppose, of all children."

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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