Jordanian baby Naji G. was critically ill when doctors from A Heart for Peace whisked her to Israel for life-saving treatment.Naji G. was born in Amman, Jordan in 2004, with severe heart defects and meningitis. Critically ill, the baby was whisked off to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, Israel for a life-saving heart operation. After a month of recovery, she returned to Jordan in good health.
The Arab community in the Middle East is fraught with stories like Naji’s. With high cases of familial inbreeding, congenital heart defects and other genetically transmitted diseases, cases like this are sadly far too common in this part of the world.
Helping to mend these “broken” hearts is an Israeli-French non-profit organization, A Heart for Peace (“Un Coeur pour la Paix” in French). The group founded by doctors, has come to the rescue, by giving life-saving operations to Arab children, with an added hope of peace building at the same time.
So far, since it was founded in 2005, the organization has fixed the hearts of 102 children. Each week a child in need of open-heart surgery, and other invasive cardiology procedures, is admitted to Hadassah, where the Israeli doctors work their miracles.
Ninety percent of the children come from the Palestinian Authority’s Gaza Strip, and receive the operation free of charge. Post-operative care is included.
The organization, founded by Dr. Azaria Rein, a cardiologist from Israel, and Dr. Muriel Haim, a geriatrician from France who lived in Israel for some years, also intends to give expertise to local Palestinian doctors, so that they can be self-sufficient, and perform the much-needed operations within their own communities.
“When I was living in Israel, I came with a group of French doctors to present to them the challenges of every nationality, inside a country at war,” Haim tells ISRAEL21c. “Dr. Rein had already been working with Palestinian children, and we asked how we could help.”
At the time, there was no department of cardiac surgery in any Palestinian hospital. “The children need to go for surgery or else they will die,” says Haim.
Today through the organization, local doctors in Gaza and elsewhere choose which children are most in need. Once in Israel, the operation is fully funded by money provided by A Heart for Peace, and Hadassah Hospital. Each operation costs about Euros 12,000.
Thanks to some political backend maneuverings, the organization also has an agreement allowing the children and mothers to pass through the Israeli border with relative ease.
The organization expects to continue treating one child per week, amounting to about 50 heart operations a year.
These procedures are all performed at Hadassah Hospital, often by teams that include both Israeli and Palestinian physicians, the latter who are in training at Hadassah. Rein said that one day he hopes to “enable Palestinians to open up a pediatric cardiac center for themselves which will compete with our center.”
“We think it is necessary to train doctors on cardiac ecography,” says Haim. “They also need to be trained in post-surgery follow-up, and to learn how to increase their diagnosis level.”
Currently, one Palestinian doctor is in training for pediatric heart surgery at Hadassah, and two more trainees are expected to arrive later this year.
Haim, who is now employed as an executive at the drug company Merck, contends that in addition to the lives saved, A Heart for Peace works as a bridge for peace, a bid recognized by the United Nations.
In 1981, the World Health Organization (which belongs to the UN), developed a resolution that formally linked war and public health. It stated: “The role of physicians and other health workers in the preservation and promotion of peace, is the most significant factor for the attainment of health for all.”
Haim agrees: “We are working to let people better understand each other. We have mothers come to us from Gaza who have never been to Israel before. The only thing they know about Israel is the soldier, but once they have their kid cured [by Israelis], they can’t look at [Israel] soldiers in the same way.”
She explains that when in the hospital, the Palestinian mothers share a room with Israeli mothers, whose children are also undergoing post-operative care. Normally women from these two societies have little contact, and sometimes animosity towards each other.