Syrian girl Sham, 9, rescued after earthquake battles 'crush syndrome'

She now faces the risk of having her legs amputated

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A nine-year-old girl became a symbol of hope when she was rescued after being trapped under the rubble for 40 hours following the earthquake in Syria on February 6.

Sham Sheikh Mohammad was found alive by rescuers who worked for six hours to free her from the debris.

She now faces the risk of having her legs amputated because of tissue damage caused by the crush injuries.

A video of Sham humming a tune along with her White Helmets rescuers has been widely shared on social media.

White Helmets volunteer Mohammed Nasreddine recalled the rescue and told AFP how they would hum the tune “Damascus” together.

“She gave us strength when we heard her,” he said.

“Our joy was indescribable when she got out.”

The White Helmets, known as Syria Civil Defence, are famous for freeing people from bombed buildings in the country's rebel-held regions throughout Syria's civil war.

Syrian girl rescued after earthquake battles 'crush syndrome'

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Syrian girl Sham Sheikh Mohammad, 9, who was rescued after fourty hours under the rubble of a deadly earthquake, lies on a hospital bed in the rebel-held northwestern city of Idlib, on February 17, 2023.  - A girl who became a symbol of hope in the midst of tragedy when rescuers pulled her from under the debris in Syria's quake-stricken northwest now risks double leg amputation.  Little Sham suffers, like many survivors of the February 6 tremor, from crush syndrome, a potentially fatal condition that causes limb amputation, damages the kidney and heart disease.  (Photo by Omar HAJ KADOUR  /  AFP)

What is 'crush syndrome'?

Sham, like many survivors of the 7.8-magnitude quake that killed more than 44,000 people across Turkey and Syria on February 6, is now suffering from what doctors call crush syndrome.

It occurs in limbs that were starved of blood circulation for too long and starts with a severe pain in the affected extremity, which can still look healthy in the early stages.

In the condition known by the medical term rhabdomyolysis, muscle fibre dies and is released into the bloodstream, sometimes causing kidney failure.

Patients at first seem to be in good condition before they start to deteriorate.

“This is what we call 'the smile of death',” said orthopaedic surgeon Tarek Mustafa.

He said it can cause cardiac and other potentially fatal complications. The health services in the rebel-held Idlib region have reported at least 100 such cases.

“Sham is one of several patients suffering from the syndrome who have been admitted to the region's hospitals,” Dr Mustafa said.

Many of these casualties are traumatised children, some already reeling from losing one or both parents in the tragedy.

Syrian family shelter in cave in Antakya

Syrian family shelter in cave in Antakya

Sham's mother and sister were killed when the family's building collapsed in the town of Armanaz, in the north-western province of Idlib, while her father and two brothers also survived.

The family had moved there in 2019 after fleeing a military offensive by the Russian-backed Syrian regime, which has regained control of most of the country's territory since the war started in 2011.

Sham's possible leg amputations have been postponed for now, but she is not yet safe, said Dr Mustafa, who works in one of the hospitals run by the Syrian American Medical Society in the north-west.

When the White Helmets heard that Sham's legs may be amputated, they posted on Twitter asking followers to pray for her and for other survivors battling crush syndrome.

Another of the group's rescuers, Ziad Hamdi, recalled how “I was working to free her legs, and tears came to my eyes. She reminded me of my five-year-old daughter.”

In the clip, he is heard promising to take Sham to an amusement park if she can just hold on a little longer.

“I want to wear beautiful clothes,” the little girl responded cheerfully. “I want to be a princess.”

“She's witty, I did not expect such an answer from a child fighting for her life,” said Mr Hamdi.

“We made a promise. I will take her to the amusement park and buy her whatever she wants.”

Updated: February 22, 2023, 2:29 PM