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Chapel Hill resident sponsors heart surgery for 8-year-old Afghan girl

	Chapel Hill resident Rita Bigham and her husband are helping fund surgery for 8-year-old Maryam. Courtesy of Ashley Lewis.

Chapel Hill resident Rita Bigham and her husband are helping fund surgery for 8-year-old Maryam. Courtesy of Ashley Lewis.

Chapel Hill resident Rita Bigham was able to accomplish her goal of helping sick Afghan children this week.

Three years ago, Bigham began talking with the head of cardiology at UNC Hospitals about bringing children from Afghanistan to the U.S. for heart procedures.

And earlier this month, she got to meet 8-year-old Maryam, the first child she’s brought to UNC Hospitals.

Bigham raised $4,900 to fly Maryam to the U.S. through Solace for the Children, a nonprofit organization that provides medical care for children from war-torn countries. Bigham and her husband then set up a fund to pay for her treatment at UNC Hospitals.

“I really thought it was a wonderful thing to do because the medical health (care) they can get in Afghanistan is so very poor,” Bigham said.

Since retiring from her job as an elementary school teacher after 28 years, Bigham has been volunteering at the N.C. Children’s Hospital with her therapy dog Pippin.

“Maryam had an absolute fit over (Pippin),” Bigham said. “She really opened up after that.”

Elman Frantz, one of Maryam’s doctors at UNC, said Maryam was born with an extra blood vessel connecting her aorta and her main lung artery. Frantz said all babies have this before birth, but it usually closes quickly after.

Frantz oversaw Maryam’s procedure to close the blood vessel last week.

“We had planned to close this blood vessel with a minimally invasive catheter procedure,” Frantz said. “But during the procedure, we discovered that she also has a narrowing in the aorta.”

Maryam had a six-hour surgery to treat the combination of conditions Tuesday morning.

“Maryam should have a lifelong fix without future problems,” Frantz said.

He said Maryam will need a few days to recover in the hospital.

Ashley Lewis — a Raeford resident who is hosting Maryam throughout her stay in the U.S., which should last until early August — said she was nervous during the initial procedure.

“When we went last week, she’d only been here for just over two weeks,” Lewis said.

“It was really like being there with my own children. She calls me Mom.”

Lewis said Maryam is the same age as her son.

“She’ll pick on him like normal brothers and sisters,” Lewis said.

“And my son’s like, ‘I don’t think she likes me.’ She’ll push him around and laugh.”

Lewis said she considered becoming a host mom later in her life, but when she heard about Maryam’s case, she decided that now was the right time.

“I got an email saying Solace National added on Maryam’s case and (they didn’t have) enough host families.

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“I mean, I was crying. There wasn’t any need to wait for the perfect time. She just really needed a family.”

Contact the desk editor at university@dailytarheel.com.

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