Nearly 5,000 children from across the globe are living normal lives thanks to free heart surgeries they received care of Israeli doctors.
The kids live in 51 countries – some of which have no diplomatic relations with Israel – including Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Haiti, Tanzania, China, Ukraine, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Angola.
Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), an international humanitarian organization based in Israel, is the most prominent group giving children with cardiac conditions a healthier future.
Founded in 1995 by the late Dr. Ami Cohen, SACH has treated more than 4,000 children brought to Wolfson Medical Center in Holon from areas ravaged by war or natural disaster. About half the patients are from Gaza and the West Bank, Jordan, Iraq and Morocco; more than 30 percent are from Africa; and the rest are from Asia, Eastern Europe and the Americas. All costs are covered by donors including the European Union’s Partnership for Peace Program, USAID, and the German foundation Ein Herz fur Kinder.
A smaller and newer organization, A Heart for Peace, together with Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, has so far given a new lease on life to more than 640 Palestinian children suffering from congenital heart diseases.
Every story of a life saved is heartwarming. Here are a few of the most memorable:
In July 2016, Yehia – a 16-month-old Afghani refugee — underwent a complex eight-hour lifesaving heart operation. His story melted hearts around the world.
“I’m just in love with this child; he’s so vibrant and smiley. God bless Save a Child’s Heart — if they didn’t accept [Yehia], he would have died. This medical team at Wolfson is incredible, everyone from the chief surgeon, Dr. [Lior] Sasson, to the staff and volunteers,” Fary Moini, formerly a cardiac nurse in Iran who came to Israel to help care for Yehia, told ISRAEL21c.
In July 2014, 17-month-old Wisam came to Israel from Iraq with life-threatening congenital heart disease. His Yazidi family had escaped to the mountains under persecution by the terrorist group Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS).
Although Iraq is an enemy state, Israel approves the entry of children in need of heart surgeries on humanitarian grounds. In May 2013, three Kurdish children from this western Asian country received special permission to come for lifesaving heart surgeries.
“The humanitarian treatment that we grant to children is in essence the difference between us and some of our neighbors. I’m proud to be a partner in this project which brings hearts together and promotes fraternity among nations,” said Silvan Shalom, then Minister for Regional Cooperation.
Also in May 2013, a four-year-old Syrian girl was rushed to Holon for open-heart surgery. The mother told reporters she was hesitant about coming to an “enemy country” but the only thing that mattered was having the opportunity to save her daughter’s life.
SACH’s doctors and nurses also embark on annual volunteer medical missions to assist large numbers of children waiting for lifesaving treatments.
In March 2016, SACH cardiologists, nurses and volunteers from Wolfson Medical Center set up an operating room at Jakaya Kikwete Cardiac Institute in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Among the dozens of lifesaving procedures they performed was repairing a hole in a child’s artery. It was the first catheterization of this nature ever done in Tanzania.
Less than a year earlier, in July 2015, 10 children in Tanzania were given a new lease on life thanks to an Israeli medical delegation that flew out to the eastern African country.
The ultimate goal of SACH is to create centers of competence in developing countries so that children can be treated independently in their own communities. At Wolfson Medical Center in Israel, SACH has trained some 100 physicians and nurses from China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Moldova, Nigeria, Romania, Russia, Tanzania and Vietnam, as well as the Palestinian Authority territories, in all facets of pediatric cardiac care.
In September 2014, Sasson performed a successful open-heart surgery on a Gazan baby, assisted by SACH trainees from the Palestinian Authority territories and from Ethiopia.
“This is what distinguishes us as Israelis: the ability to ignore what is happening around and continue with our sacred work of saving children’s lives,” said Sasson.
“Children are children,” said SACH chief surgeon Sasson. “For us it doesn’t matter where the children come from; every child deserves to receive the best medical treatment and children from both sides shouldn’t be a part of the conflict.”
A Heart for Peace is also building bridges and mending hearts in the Palestinian community. Since its founding in 2005, the project’s mixed team of Israeli and Palestinian doctors has cared for nearly 700 Palestinian children – 20% of them from Gaza and 80% from Palestinian-administered areas of the West Bank — suffering from congenital heart diseases.
The project has trained five Palestinian doctors to perform echocardiographs and/or catheterizations, 197 general practitioners to perform early screening, and one female Palestinian genetics counselor.
A Heart for Peace estimates it has enabled 1,200 echocardiographs to be carried out every year in the West Bank. The group even set up a system to admit children to Hadassah during the night in dire cardiac cases.
“Every child has the right to care, and when I heard … that many Palestinian children suffering from congenital cardiopathy were dying because they had no access to heart surgery in the West Bank, I decided in cooperation with [cofounder Dr. Azaria JJT Rein] and Hadassah to provide cardiac surgery for those children. It is as simple as that,” Dr. Muriel Haim, one of the founders, told ISRAEL21c.