Surgery at UPMC helps Libyan who lost arm in uprising row again

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Mohamed al Rabte, then 23, was an engineering student in his hometown of Zuwarah in far western Libya, and a rower on the Libyan national team when the revolution broke out early last year. He joined the rebels fighting to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

On Aug. 28, 2011, Mr. Rabte's guerrilla band was fighting to liberate the town just west of Zuwarah. The freedom fighters were going house to house to clear the last of the mercenaries from the town. As the young man crossed the street, he was shot by a sniper on a rooftop behind him.

The sniper was armed with a Vladimirov KPV-14.5mm heavy machine gun. Designed during World War II to destroy light armored vehicles, the KPV is more like a cannon than a rifle. Mr. Rabte's left arm was nearly torn off. Shell fragments lodged in his stomach and both arms.

After a battlefield amputation at a field hospital, he returned to the fight. He'd been the gunner of a rebel KPV before he was wounded. With the help of someone to load for him, he could still fire his weapon with his one good arm.

"All I had to do was pull the trigger," he said.

After the revolution was won last October, Mr. Rabte went first to Tunisia, then to Germany, for treatment. The battlefield amputation had saved him from bleeding to death, but it appeared to have doomed him to a life of pain because the nerves near the amputation site were scarred and very close to the surface of the skin.

"He had scars on all of his nerves," said Ivan Tarkin, an orthopedic surgeon and trauma expert at UPMC. "Every time you have a big thick scar, you live with chronic pain. If you put on a prosthesis, the pain is unbearable."

He'd just have to live with the pain, Mr. Rabte was told by his doctors in Germany.

A hero to his fellow rowers for his heroics during the revolution, he led the Libyan delegation during the opening ceremonies for the Arab Games in Doha, Qatar, last December.

"We asked him to travel with us to Qatar, so that he could be closer to his brothers," said Nabil Elalem, president of Libya's Olympic Committee.

But it appeared as if he could never again participate in the sport he loved. Then his uncle intervened.

Salem Bensasi, a data processing manager for Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, came to Pittsburgh as a student, and stayed. He has worked at UPMC for 26 years. Mr. Bensasi had never met his nephew but he learned of his plight on a visit to Libya. He arranged for the young man to come to UPMC, and the new government in Libya paid for his treatment.

"I know what a wonderful hospital this is," Mr. Bensasi said. Dr. Tarkin proved him right, the doctors in Germany wrong.

"I had to find every major nerve in his arm, then trace them back to healthy tissue, then make sure they were resting comfortably in healthy muscle tissue higher up in the arm," Dr. Tarkin said.

Thanks to his surgery here, Mr. Rabte no longer is in constant pain. He can wear a prosthetic comfortably. He has been fitted for two: one for everyday use and another designed specifically to permit him to return to the sport of rowing.

He was a model patient, Dr. Tarkin said. "He is the nicest, most honorable gentleman I have met in a long time. Even though the surgery was potentially painful, there was never a peep out of him."

Mr. Rabte tested out his prosthetic arm on the Allegheny River shortly after being fitted with it on Oct. 11. He'll return to Libya as soon as he gets his doctor's OK to travel. There is a rowing competition in Tunisia this month in which he'd like to participate.

He has enjoyed his time in Pittsburgh. Mr. Rabte said,"It's small and safe. And I like the Steelers."


Jack Kelly: or 412-263-1476.


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