The miracle broker: Abdiaziiz Gaal devotes his time to helping Somali children get needed medical attention.

Murayo iyo Abdi Gaal

Abdiaziiz Gaal

 Halkaan ka akhri

Someone who visits Abdiaziz Gaal at his home in Rochester is likely to get a phone call later: Thank you for coming, and did you get back to the Twin Cities all right?

Murayo iyo Abdi Gaal

Someone who meets him a second time is likely to get an embrace.

And anyone who listens for a minute or two to his latest unlikely quest is apt to say, “How can I help?”

“Once you hear from him, and see his charm, and his intellect, and his commitment, and his integrity, it’s just about impossible to avoid joining with him on his journey,” said Dr. Mac Baird, head of the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “Whatever he has, it’s contagious.”

Gaal’s mission – between helping raise his 4-year-old daughter and working full time as a social worker – is to get a few kids in his native Somalia the medical care they can’t get at home.

So far, he has arranged for an 11-year-old girl to have reconstructive surgery at the Mayo Clinic, five years after she was so brutally raped she needed to wear diapers. Then he got the University of Minnesota and its children’s hospital to operate on a 17-year-old girl who had a tumor the size of a grapefruit growing out of her mouth.

And today, he’s making final arrangements for a 14-month-old boy to get surgery for a life-threatening birth defect.

Never mind that his training as a “medical diplomat” is nonexistent. His secret for making things happen just may be the personal touch he brings-

an approach that gives him all the power of a high-priced lobbyist and none of the sleaze.

“He’s very sensitive to his audience,” said Ann Peterson, vice president of patient and business services for University of Minnesota Physicians, the group that managed the financial details of the doctors’ services for the girl with the tumor. “If he felt like the tactic he was taking wasn’t effective, he would change tactics. And he’s just an incredibly polite and nice person.”

Gaal, 37, and his wife, Zahra, married 14 years ago when both lived in Somalia. They settled in Rochester in 1998 and rent the main level of a duplex there. They both work at the Mayo clinics; Zahra is a clinical assistant.

They also keep in touch with news in their home country via the Internet.

Two years ago, they heard about a 2-year-old Somali girl – about the same age then as their own daughter – who had a large tumor in her vaginal area. Someone arranged to get help from Europe, but it came too late. The toddler died.

When the couple heard about Murayo Ali, a girl who suffered a physically debilitating rape at age 7, they had to act.

“That’s what opened our eyes to get the people helping here,” Zahra said.


The couple’s connections at Mayo gave them the start they needed for the biggest hurdle: getting the commitment for free medical help for Murayo. The clinic helps a limited number of patients in significant need, when highly unusual medical expertise is required. Murayo was accepted in part because surgeons in Somalia did not have the resources and experience to help her.

But even after Mayo gave the go-ahead, there were mountains to climb: Hundreds of e-mails to everyone the couple could think of. Appeals for money, for legal assistance, for political wrangling. Middle-of-the-night phone calls to East Africa, which is nine hours ahead of Central time.

Gaal and his wife signed on to be Murayo’s sponsors during her time in the U.S., limited by her visa to one year. He arranged for her and her father to live at the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester during her treatment. The housing is free, but the Gaals covered food, clothing and personal items, with some donations from friends and colleagues. They have no idea of the total they’ve spent.

After several surgeries, Murayo’s physical condition is excellent, her doctor said. She no longer needs diapers, and she is getting counseling for the trauma she suffered.

But the experience has taken its toll on Gaal. He spent virtually all his spare time for six months just to get Murayo on Minnesota soil. She arrived in February. When everything was more or less settled, he felt jubilant – and exhausted. He wanted a break.

Zahra wouldn’t hear of it. He had already told her about Binti Mohamed, 17, the girl with the tumor.

“She said: ‘Abdi, don’t ignore this. Help her,’ ” he recalled.


Gaal did not always feel driven to save these kids, he said.

“It was not something I was born with, but something God put in me.”

As with Murayo, the couple heard about Mohamed through the Internet. She had a monstrous tumor growing around her lower jaw and protruding from her mouth. She wore her hijab, or head scarf, over her face to hide it.

Baird, the U professor, had previously worked at Mayo. Gaal knew him there, and they had become friends.

Though Baird was not directly involved in approving the university’s acceptance of Mohamed’s case, he put in a good word.

“I introduced Abdi, at his request, to the people who are in a position to make those decisions,” Baird said.

“And by golly, the next thing I know, (Mohamed) has a visa, a sponsor in this country, a source of income to help their travel,” Baird said, “and a young woman has her life changed in a very positive way.”

Doctors at the U wanted to know before they accepted the job whether Mohamed’s tumor was malignant. A spreading cancer would mean her prognosis was much poorer, and she would not be a good candidate. But a biopsy came back negative: The tumor was benign.

Mohamed checked into the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, and her surgery was scheduled for Nov. 8. Medical staff, including two surgeons, worked 20 hours in the operating room.

“I had never operated on anything that big,” said Dr. Robert Maisel, interim head of the department of otolaryngology, who had the responsibility of removing the tumor.

Dr. Amy Anne Donatelli Lassig was in charge of the reconstruction, which involved breaking Mohamed’s left lower leg in two places and using the piece from in between to form a new jawbone. The tumor had grown around Mohamed’s jaw, pushing her lower teeth out as it grew. Using a microscope, Lassig also had to connect tiny blood vessels around the bone as part of the reconstruction.

Five weeks later, Mohamed is doing well.


Maisel was modest about the surgeons’ role. “What we did is what we do all day long,” he said. “What (Gaal) did, out of Rochester, Minnesota – arranging things over two continents – is spectacular.”

Gaal is the first to point out that he has had plenty of help. He raves about the medical personnel, calling them his angels. Many other individuals and groups also have pitched in. A fellow Somali signed on as Mohamed’s sponsor. Women from the Somali community in Minneapolis collected money at the Somali mall. Mosques took up collections. And two Minneapolis women, Abia Ali and Aisha Hussein, take turns spending the night with Mohamed in her hospital room to help provide moral support and translate.

“What was a miracle was how all those people got together,” Gaal said. “God was guiding us – not only me, but all those people.”

Mohamed’s father, Jaylani Abdigarad, called Gaal “like a brother to me now,” and called himself “the luckiest man on the Earth.”

One recent weekday, back in Rochester, Gaal joined Murayo and her father at the East African Restaurant for lunch. Gaal pays for the father and daughter to eat there every day. It is within walking distance from the Ronald McDonald House and features the spaghetti and rice that Murayo loves.

During lunch, Murayo leans into Gaal, teases him, and laughs and laughs.

“When I look at Murayo,” Gaal said after the meal, “she has hope now.”

And so does he. The next child he’s helping, the 14-month-old boy, has been accepted for care at Mayo. Still, much needs to be done – for him and for other children.

“I put my heart at night to sleep, and in the morning I say, ‘You can do it,’ ” Gaal said, “and just keep going.”

Emily Gurnon can be reached at or 651-228-5522.


Murayo Ali and Binti Mohamed have accounts for their benefit at local banks:

Murayo: Wells Fargo Bank, account 2475736001.

Mohamed: TCF Bank, routing number 291070001, account 8870786018.

Contact: Abdi Gaal at

Source: Pioneer Press ,December 16, 2007

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