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Exclusive: After 6 operations, Nairobi mall attack victim vows to become doctor to help people like herself

Above: 17-year-old Fardowsa Abdi is recovering in a Toronto hospital, trying to push memories of the past and doubts about her future from her mind. Cindy Pom reports.

TORONTO – Just over five weeks since surviving the Nairobi mall attack, 17-year-old Fardowsa Abdi is recovering in a Toronto hospital, trying to push memories of the past and doubts about her future from her mind.

“When I was in Kenya, I thought my injuries were life-threatening,” she told Global News reporter Cindy Pom in an exclusive interview from her hospital bed. “Everyone seemed so sad about it, and it just made me feel as if I wouldn’t even live to another day.”

Abdi was grocery shopping with her younger sister at the Westgate Mall on Sept. 21, when members of the Somalia-based militant group al-Shabab attacked.

“The first sound I heard was of gunshots – at first I thought it was a joke,” said Abdi.

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“I didn’t take it seriously until people started screaming. That’s pretty much the only moment I do remember in the mall…chaos and bedlam after that.”

Abdi took the brunt of a grenade that hit both girls, and was then separated from her 16-year-old sister, Dheeman.

“I didn’t see her until they found an escape route and she came to me and she was trying to take me, but I couldn’t stand up,” remembered Abdi. “And she asked for other people to help, and no one would help…I’m glad I got the worst blow and she didn’t get too much of an injury.”

Abdi’s leg was so badly injured, doctors in Kenya said there was nothing more they could do to save it.

With the help of Canadian consular officials, she arrived in Canada on Sept. 29 and had her first surgery at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital after a trauma assessment the same evening.

Watch: Full Interview with Nairobi mall attack victim Fardowsa Abdi

Abdi said she vividly remembers her plane landing at Toronto Pearson Airport.

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“I remember feeling happy, tired because it was a really long flight, and also really excited because I was out of Kenya and going to a good hospital.”

Sunnybrook physician Dr. Hans Kreder called it “extensive clean-up surgery for severely injured and infected tissues all over her body,” in an email to Global News. The next day, she had another “clean-up” operation to fix the main broken bones.

Dr. Laura Snell then performed surgery on Oct. 8 to “take a muscle from the upper body and cover the huge defect in the right leg,” explained Dr. Kreder. This process was followed by dressing changes in the burn unit.

Abdi had three more major cleaning operations at Sunnybrook: Oct. 18, Oct. 25 and yesterday, Oct. 28. Doctors are hopeful she’ll be able to walk again, though the timeline is uncertain.

“Before I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything, I had pain medications 24/7, I had to have a pain pump with me,” she said. “But [now] I can sit up on my own, I can dangle my legs over the edge of the bed. And I tried standing up a few days ago, on one foot. And even though it was really disorienting, at least I did it.”

Abdi said on bad days, she used to feel like she’d never walk again, or even leave the hospital, but that’s changed both physically and mentally.

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“I remember…about 2 weeks [ago] even the sound of flip flops against the ground, my mind was just kind of translating it to the sounds I heard that day,” she said. “But that paranoia has faded away.

The young woman said while she misses going to school and seeing friends, her experience has made her grateful for every living moment, and thankful for receiving cards and gifts –both from friends and complete strangers who have been inspired by her story.

She has one more year of high school, then hopes to get into a Canadian school – the University of Toronto is her first choice.

“I want to go to medical school and become a doctor,” she said, adding this was her goal prior to the attack, but that her desire has only been strengthened by the experience.

“I want to be able to help people the way that I’m being helped.”

Her sister, Dheeman, also suffered an explosion-related injury to her hand and a gunshot wound to her leg. Dheeman was released from a Kenyan hospital soon after the attack, and arrived in Toronto a few days ago after recovering in Nairobi.

The girls were born in Toronto and lived there with their Somali-born parents until four years ago, when they returned to Kenya.

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There were 62 civilians, including two Canadians, killed in the Sept. 21 terrorist attack — the worst on Kenyan soil since the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi.

Al-Shabab said the attack was in retaliation for Kenya’s involvement with Somali government efforts to drive out the extremist group.

With a report from Cindy Pom