The sun had only begun to set on Gaza when an artillery shell exploded in Nojoud Basal’s bedroom in 2009.
Part of the blindly hurling shrapnel struck Basal's head, splintering into the right side of her brain.
Through the confusion and chaos of a military showdown between Hamas and Israeli troops, the Palestinian teenager never lost consciousness.
She would receive immediate treatment at a local hospital and then physical therapy in Europe, though a 2-inch opening and much of the shrapnel remained. For a time, her left arm and leg were paralyzed.
With the aid of a Chicago chapter of the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), Basal was brought to for surgery.
Late last month, pediatric neurosurgeon Yoon Hahn and his surgical team patched Basal's skull using a titanium mesh coated with a de-mineralized bone paste that promotes bone healing.
Speaking through a friend and interpreter, Basal said on Wednesday that she was happy she went through with the surgery and looking forward to seeing her parents. She's clear to go as soon as social conditions settle in Egypt, where her flight must first stop, and hopes to return to the States one day to study nursing.
Hahn, who has more than ten years' experience at Christ and teaches at the University of Illinois Medical Center, said there were no complications during the two-hour surgery. He expects the bone to heal completely without causing any long-term discomfort.
“In the same day she was already eating and watching TV,” Hahn said, later noting that she had the strength and sensibility to try entertaining the nurses in intensive care.
At the teenager’s side throughout her American sojourn has been Rania Sadeq, a Jordan-born, Hoffman Estates resident and member of the PCRF. Sadeq acts as Basal’s caretaker and interpreter and said they've grown close in the last couple months.
“I have two children and she was just part of the family,” said Sadeq, adding, "I played the role of her mom."
Basal’s own mom, in Gaza, was less fortunate. A spinal injury caused by the same explosion has hindered her movement, despite three months of treatment in Egypt, Sadeq said. Basal is able to stay connected with her friends and family by writing via the internet—a light exercise Hahn considers a form of physical therapy.
Basal speaks hardly any English, but easily picks up on the nuances of tone. Sporting a bright pink headscarf, she smiled shyly when Sadeq joked about last week’s blizzard and went tight-lipped when Hahn offered a medical dictum.
The teenager's eyes lit up when word came that she could begin washing her hair with soap and water. For religious reasons, reporters were not allowed to see her scars, but Hahn was able to present a scanned computer replica of her skull which shows exactly where the impact occurred.
Though finished with surgery, Basal will require a little physical therapy back home and perhaps medicine for psychological trauma, Hahn said.
But Basal gives no evidence of being disquieted. From listening to her speak and watching her convalesce, Sadeq can attest to the resiliency of children of war.
“They live day by day. We think of next week, we think of next month,” Sadeq said. “For her, she wants a good song, she wants a good chat with a good friend. Today. Now.”