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Infant begins mercy mission to United States

Family seeks help for 3-month-old with birth defect
Noor departed for the United States on Friday for life-saving surgery at a hospital in Georgia.



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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- A mercy airlift from Iraq to the United States got under way Friday, as the U.S. military helped an Iraqi infant named Noor receive treatment for a potentially fatal birth defect.

The three-month-old Noor -- nicknamed Baby Noor by the media and whose last name has not been released to protect against insurgents -- is suffering from spina bifida. The birth defect results in the spinal column failing to completely close. Iraqi doctors had told her parents she would live only 45 days without treatment.

Accompanied by her father and grandmother, Noor is flying to Kuwait and then to Atlanta, Georgia. "She is doing well considering her illness," reported CNN's Joe Duran.

The child captured the hearts of members of the the Georgia National Guard after they raided her Baghdad home during a routine "knock-and-search" three weeks ago.

As the girl's young parents nervously watched the U.S. soldiers search their home, the baby's unflinching grandmother thrust the little girl at the Americans, showing them the purple pouch protruding from her back.

Pfc. Justin Donnelly, an Army medic in the unit that found the child, examined Noor and said it was apparent something was wrong with her.

"I really wanted to help her as much as possible," Donnelly said Friday. "So what I did was all I could do, really, and see what happens from there."

"I feel like God put me here to help this little girl so, that pretty much makes my whole trip here worth it."

Donnelly, and other soldiers including Lt. Jeff Morgan, began working to help Noor.

"I saw this child as the firstborn child of the young mother and father, and really, all I could think of was my five children back at home and my young daughter," Morgan said. "And I knew if I had the opportunity whatsoever to save my daughter's life, I would do everything possible.

"So my heart just kind of went out to this baby and these parents who ... were living in poverty and had no means to help their baby. I thought we could do that for them."

The soldiers began visiting the family at night, so insurgents wouldn't retaliate against the family for speaking with Americans.

The soldiers also brought Noor to a U.S. military base for medical examinations and enlisted the help of friends and charities in the United States to get her the surgery that could save her life.

'We're very hopeful'

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, is also involved in the project.

"We're very hopeful that within a matter of hours and not days now we're going to see this little girl in Atlanta," Chambliss said Wednesday.

Once Noor does arrive in the United States, Dr. Roger Hudgins, the chief of neurosurgery at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, has promised to perform the delicate operation for free.

Timing is critical. "We need to get the back closed," Hudgins said. "The concern here is meningitis. If the baby gets an infection on the back, that infection can spread to the coverings all over the brain and the baby may die, so time is of the essence."

Spina bifida, often called open spine, is a birth defect that occurs during the first month of pregnancy when the spinal column fails to close completely.

It affects the backbone and sometimes the spinal cord itself, often causing permanently disabling defects, particularly neurological damage.

It is the most common such birth defect -- known as neural tube defects -- affecting about 1,500 to 2,000 babies born in the United States each year, according to the March of Dimes. Some 70,000 people in the United States are living with spina bifida, according to the Spina Bifida Association.

There are three types of spina bifida. Baby Noor has the most severe type, in which the spinal cord's protective covering and the spinal nerves come through the opening in the spine.

The neurological damage that can come from this type includes full or partial paralysis, bladder and bowel control difficulties, learning disabilities and depression.

Hudgins said that while the surgery will probably help Noor, there's no guarantee that it will cure her of her condition.

"Our hope and expectation ... is that we can get the child through the surgery and save the life, then we can work on the quality of life," he said.

CNN's Joe Duran contributed to this report.

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