Duluth woman wants to help heal hearts in Iraq

Ten years after U.S. forces brought "shock and awe" to Iraq, a Duluth woman is ready to work with a group that brings healing to tiny Iraqi hearts. Acadia Osborne, a Duluth East graduate who is a junior at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.,...

Acadia Osborne
Duluthian Acadia Osborne is preparing to travel to Iraq this summer. The Pepperdine University student will be interning for an agency that seeks to give Iraqi children life-saving heart surgeries. (Submitted photo)

Ten years after U.S. forces brought "shock and awe" to Iraq, a Duluth woman is ready to work with a group that brings healing to tiny Iraqi hearts.

Acadia Osborne, a Duluth East graduate who is a junior at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., will spend this summer with the Preemptive Love Coalition. That's a nonprofit organization training Iraqi surgeons to perform heart surgeries in a country that has been devastated not only by war but by a staggering rate of birth defects.

Osborne, 20, a pre-med student at Pepperdine, said she was drawn to the work when company founders Jeremy and Jessica Courtney spoke to the Churches of Christ-affiliated school earlier this year.

"The work that they're doing is very unique," Osborne said in a telephone interview during a break from classes on Friday. "It addresses a need that's there and shows love in that way."

Research shows the immense need, said Matthew Willingham, the organization's communications director. Although data are indefinite, the best available figures suggest that between one and 10 and one in 15 Iraqi children are born with a birth defect. The worldwide average is one in 100.


"Even compared to other countries nearby, it's high," Willingham said in a phone interview from the Kurdish north of Iraq where the group is based. "It's not just a Middle Eastern thing. There's something about it that is very Iraqi. We don't have really firm, solid research to say ... exactly why."

Waiting list of thousands

The most common birth defects are heart-related, said Willingham, who spoke from a hotel lobby because it has much more reliable electricity and Wi-Fi service. It's believed the waiting list for heart surgeries in Iraq is between 35,000 and 40,000 children, Willingham said, and between 9,000 and 12,000 more are added each year.

Preemptive Love Coalition started by paying to send Iraqi children for heart surgeries in other countries, Willingham said. They soon switched to bringing in a trained pediatric cardiac surgical team for two weeks at a time. They perform between 16 and 25 heart operations and train Iraqi surgeons at the same time.

Osborne is the only one of the eight interns coming this summer who might travel with one of the surgical teams, Willingham said. If that happens, it will be right after she arrives in early May.

After that, Osborne will be involved in more mundane work, researching and copy writing for the organization's annual report, she said. She'll work closely with the other interns, including her best friend, a journalism intern who also attends Pepperdine.

A different Iraq

The situation is much different in Iraq than it was 10 years ago on the eve of the March 2003 aerial assault by the U.S. and its allies that began the war in Iraq, Willingham said.


"We've just been greeted very warmly by locals," Willingham said, even in the relatively tense central cities of Fallujah and Tikrit.

"We tell our interns and our staff that the biggest sacrifice is being bored and not having great food and staying in a dumpy hotel," he said.

Osborne, the daughter of Brett and Kathy Osborne of Duluth, said she doesn't really know what to expect. But she did consider the possible risks.

"Very understandably, my mom is worried," Acadia Osborne said. "But we've both been doing our research."

She learned that a terrorist attack is considered more likely this summer in a European city than where she'll be, Osborne related.

'A special kind of person'

Osborne's willingness to forego more conventional college-student summer pursuits to serve in Iraq impressed the Preemptive Love staff, Willingham said.

"Anytime we have interns contact us and say, 'I want to raise money so I can go to Iraq to travel to really challenging cities so I can help kids get heart surgery,' I think it takes a special kind of person, a very passionate and motivated person," Willingham said. "Most people are looking for internships that pay. She's actually paying to go on this internship."


Osborne chose to pay her own way rather than raise money for her internship. She said she made good money working 13-hour days at a plant last summer.

"I've been praying about what to use that money for, so I think this opportunity is it," she said.

She'd rather have people give money directly to the Preemptive Love Coalition than to support her, Osborne said.

Like Osborne, Willingham became interested in the Preemptive Love Coalition when he was in college. He developed a "charity crush" on the organization, he said, and with his wife paid a visit two years ago.

They haven't left.

"We couldn't get it out of our system," he said. "We thought it was such a beautiful reconciliatory effort. ... My wife and I are Christians. We see this as an expression of our faith, to communicate the love of God. We work alongside Muslims ... and they see this the same way."

The work is important because of the ethnic boundaries that it's crossing, Osborne said.

"They are not only bringing physical healing to children, but healing of peace as the need for surgeries and health care transcends ethnic boundaries and conflicts," she said. "I don't completely understand what that looks like, but (I) am eager to see it firsthand."


To learn more

More information on the Preemptive Love Coalition is available at .

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