During the Justice Conference last month, my husband Rich sat in on the pre-conference presentation by Jeremy Courtney, founder of Preemptive Love Coalition. PLC is an organization that provides lifesaving heart surgeries for children in Iraq. Rich was so moved by Courtney’s story that we decided right then and there to contribute.
After publishing my reflections on the Justice Conference, I connected with Preemptive Love Coalition Communication Director, Matt Willingham (who Rich and I actually met briefly at the PLC booth at the conference - super nice guy!). He was kind enough to answer my questions below. It is my prayer that those reading this will consider supporting Preemptive Love Coalition and spread the word about their amazing work. The more people who get involved, the more hope there will be for the tens of thousands of children still waiting for surgeries.
Debi Luna Marshall: Tell us the background story on Preemptive Love. How did it start and what is its mission?
Matt Willingham: It all started with a cute little girl in a hotel lobby. She wasn't going to make it to adulthood without a heart operation, and her parents were desperate. They told our founder, Jeremy, that there wasn't a hospital in Iraq that could save their little girl. So Jeremy said he'd try, and that small effort grew into a nationwide effort to help Iraqi children in need of lifesaving heart operations.
To date, there are tens of thousands of Iraqi children waiting in line for surgery. We exist to train up a new generation of Iraqi medical personnel capable of eradicating this backlog of needy children.
How did you get involved in Preemptive Love Coalition? What type of work do you do for the organization?
I heard about PLC while I was an undergrad. My wife (then girlfriend) and I thought Jeremy and his team were pretty awesome, and we kept in touch with them online. Eventually, they invited us to come visit them in Iraq to see their work first-hand. After that, we were sold. I'm now the Communication Director for the organization, and my wife helps coordinate the surgical missions and the internships.
Why do so many children in Iraq have heart issues?
Man, that must be one of the most common questions I get. I grit my teeth, though. I can't give any definitive answers - we just have culprits. Saddam's chemical attacks in the 80s, widespread malnutrition from the US-led sanctions of the 90s, and - perhaps the scariest - alleged use of chemical weaponry by US forces in Desert Storm and the Iraq War.
But, really, it's mostly an issue of medical infrastructure. Iraq's higher incidence of birth defects is alarming, but even a normal incidence would be alarming when a population of 60 million people doesn't have hardly any competent child heart surgeons. That's why we're focused on training first and foremost.
Does Preemptive Love Coalition work with the local surgeons or are they all volunteers from other nations?
Both! We bring volunteer teams from all over the planet to work side-by-side with the local surgeons and their teams. A nurse from Australia demonstrating ICU care to an Iraqi nurse, a perfusionist from Florida paired up with an Iraqi counterpart, etc. We bring the competent teachers to the Iraqis and save 15-20 lives in the process.
What is the process for a family from the time the child is identified as needing help to the time the child is post-operative? Does PLC provide any post-operative care?
These are such great questions! Praise God, we now treat so many children that we can't keep up with them all. Lives are being saved at an exponentially faster rate than when we got started with that cute little girl in the hotel lobby. That said, our goal is now about training the local Iraqis to do their own follow through. We still visit children - it's one of our favorite things! - But we know that Iraqis need to be able to care for their own, from start to finish.
So, to answer your question: the families primarily interact with their Iraqi doctors. We make occasional visits, but we try to put as much of it into the hands of locals as possible.
Does PLC have any support from the local or national government of Iraq?
We do. The federal government of Iraq contributes well over 50% of the funds for these surgical training missions. You might be noticing a theme here, but this goes back to our desire to make this an Iraqi-led solution to an Iraq-specific problem. If we swoop in and fix everything, we're only reinforcing an already pervasive dependency on outside help. It's that whole fish vs. fishing thing.
What has been the best moment (most encouraging, uplifting, satisfying) while doing this work? And the lowest (most discouraging, frustrating)?
For me, the best and worst moments come during the days immediately after a heart surgery. Most of these families have a mile-high pile of hopes for their child, and they've invested years of searching, praying, crying, and begging for this singular moment: their child's surgery.
Then, in most cases, their child's life is saved. They're beyond jubilant. I've had many a grizzly set of man-lips pressed against my cheek after surgeries. They hug and kiss me for joy, and I hug and kiss them right back!
But, sometimes kids don't make it. We're training up a novice team of Iraqi doctors and nurses, and they make mistakes. Sometimes things just go wrong without them even making mistakes at all. It's a difficult reality to deal with.
When things get tough, where do you get your inspiration to continue on?
For me personally, it's my Christian faith. Christ is worthy of everything. My life. My death. My countless hours spent typing away at my computer. With Him as my ultimate object, I can keep going. I can't allow "sick children" to become my ultimate object. As cute and needy and important as they are, they mustn't become ultimate. So long as I keep Christ where He belongs and my work, the kids, my teammates, etc. where they belong, I can press on regardless. The problem is my propensity to make the wrong things ultimate!
Overall, what has your experience working in Iraq, with Iraqi families been like?
Positive. Of course, I'll always be the alien outsider. This is a culture that highly values hospitality, and that means there are rules by which they have to abide. They host, smile, welcome, and serve us. Many of them are genuine, but some of it is lip service. Regardless, we're honored to be in their homes and a part of their lives - however briefly.
Sometimes, though, we really connect with a family, and those are the sweetest home visits. When the 'exchange of goods' mentality fades a bit and we can just be friends who care about a child, I think that's my ideal family experience.
What does the future look like for Preemptive Love Coalition? What is on the horizon?
Well, as my grandmother used to say: "God knows, but He won't tell."
Haha, I can tell you what we'd like to see happen, though. After hundreds of these surgical missions and years of work, we'd like to see 6-8 fully functioning pediatric cardiac centers established across Iraq. We'd like to work ourselves out of a job. After that, who knows? We're open to whatever comes our way.
How can people in the United States get involved in supporting Preemptive Love Coalition?
Pray for the work, for the families, and for our team. We also need financial help making these surgeries happen - $650 is enough to give an Iraqi child a lifesaving heart surgery. You can give here.
And, of course, what kind of Communication Director would I be if I didn't encourage you guys to connect with us on Facebook? We love staying touch and sharing the stories of these amazing children, so hit us up here and we'll try to put some quality stuff in your feed.
Matt Willingham, Communication Director for Preemptive Love Coalition. Photo by Lydia Bullock.