Tonasket native sends Iraqi girl home with healthy heart

Dr. Karla Christian

Dr. Karla Christian

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Most of the time, headline stories on the nightly world news have little relevance to the calm of the Okanogan River Valley.

But one major story last week had local residents sitting up when a familiar name turned an open-heart surgery into international news.

Born and raised in Tonasket, Dr. Karla Christian (nee Godwin), was in the spotlight for an open-heart surgery performed pro bono on a two-year-old girl from Iraq.

American soldiers discovered the sick little girl, Amenah Al-Bayati, in the city of Haditha. According to Vanderbilt Medical Center’s journal, the Reporter, Amenah’s family told soldiers they feared she would not live much longer. The soldiers and friends raised money online and arranged to fly her to the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville for surgery. The operation went from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. in Nashville on Feb. 11.

Amenah was released from the hospital Feb. 15. She should be able to go home to Iraq within a month, according to news reports.

While the surgery made international news, the doctor has very local roots.

Christian was born and raised in Tonasket. Her parents, Bill and Eunice Godwin, as well as much of her extended family, live in Oroville.

Christian said she got a call from someone she’d known for years, asking her if she’d be involved.

“I didn’t understand at the time how high-profile it was,” Christian said. “I told him I would help in any way I could.”

Both the surgery and the media coverage surrounding the little girl became more complicated than Christian originally expected.

After a 10-day evaluation, Amenah spent two weeks recovering from various infections before undergoing surgery Feb. 11, Christian said. The child went back to her American host family on Feb. 15 with her mother.

“The surgery went as well as you could ever hope with any patient,” Christian said. “We went from having a very blue child to a pink child.”

The media attention surrounding the case – it made world news – didn’t make it easier, she said.

“It added extra stress to the procedure,” said Christian. “There’s a certain degree of stress with any job I perform, but the attention from the media this received increased it.”

Christian’s own skills and faith in her nursing team helped get Amenah through.

While Amenah’s heart is not normal, it will be a heart she can live with for the rest of her life, Christian said.

Though Christian has been at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., since 1988, her Pacific Northwest roots are long. She graduated from Tonasket High School in 1977, then attended the University of Washington for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. She received her MD with honors from UW in 1985.

“She was one of those super-achievers,” said Eunice Godwin, Christian’s mother, of her time in school. “She was never happy with an A-.”

Christian was one of three children which her mother says all had the same drive to succeed.

“All of them are super-achievers,” she said. “They’re just not all heart surgeons.”

Christian went to Vanderbilt to complete her general surgery training and continued with a cardiothoracic residency and completing that in 1994. She is now an associate professor at Vanderbilt and specializes in complex congenital heart surgery, as well as pediatric and adult heart transplants.

“We’re all very proud of her,” said her mother. “That includes all of her aunts, uncles, cousins here – we’re so proud. She’s a local hero right now.”

According to her mom, Christian attributes the success of the surgery to local prayer.

“Our church was in prayer for two weeks before this,” Godwin said. “She says that helped her to succeed, to know the right things to do for the little one.”

Some doctors do take a cold approach to surgery, but Christian isn’t one of them.

“I believe that in the end, despite the work I do – which I perform to the best of my ability – God decides who lives and who dies,” Christian said. “I believe in the power of prayer. I think it’s important to pray for operations to go well. I pray for them, and I hope others around me do, too.”

But her mother also attributes Christian’s success to another source.

“People say you can’t get a good education in a small town,” she said. “Well, yeah, you can. She got a good education in Tonasket.”

Christian, the valedictorian of her class, agrees.

“I got a very good education in Tonasket,” she said. “I spent 12 years in the system. The schools and teachers prepared me well to go on to college, where I succeeded. Getting a good start there gave me the confidence to go into medical school.”

Godwin always votes for school levies. “These public schools gave my daughter an education,” she said.