Yared runs a school for underprivileged children. Robel is a filmmaker. Betty wants to be a doctor.

Born in Ethiopia with life-threatening heart defects, they wouldn’t have made it past childhood without Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), an international nonprofit organization based at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel.

Yared, Robel and Betty are among more than 700 Ethiopians– and 5,000 children from 61 other countries — saved by SACH medical care since 1995.

Last week, they joined over 100 SACH “alumni” and their parents at a 25th anniversary reunion at the Children’s Cardiac Center in Addis Ababa.

“That was an amazing moment, to see these healthy children and young adults, all dressed in SACH t-shirts, who were once upon a time our patients,” says Tamar Shapira, SACH deputy executive director and international spokesperson.

“The most magical thing was the dancing,” Shapira tells ISRAEL21c.

Gifti (in red sweater), a SACH past patient and now a pediatric nurse, with Ebinuf, an Ethiopian boy who underwent complicated heart surgery in Israel two years ago. Photo by Alana Entin

“We invited a local band and when they started to play happy music, the kids started dancing spontaneously and the doctors joined them.”

Another remarkable reunion attendee was Gifti. She came with a group of other young women who had surgery in Israel when they were teenagers. Inspired by her experience at SACH, she became a pediatric emergency room nurse.

The joyous reunion capped an eight-day medical mission in which 30 SACH surgeons, nurses and technicians worked with Ethiopian colleagues they had trained.

Together they performed 22 cardiac catheterizations, nine open-heart surgeries and 107 screenings and diagnoses.

Like all SACH services in Israel and abroad, the costs were covered by donations. The organization’s main Israeli supporters are Morris Kahn, Sylvan Adams and the Azrieli and Arison Foundations.

Ethiopia’s first pediatric cardiologist

Several times a year, SACH runs surgical missions and screening and diagnostic cardiology clinics in cooperation with local medical teams at various partner sites in the developing world.

Israeli nurse Evgenia Siklier with Arsena, a past patient of Save a Child’s Heart. Photo by Yonatan Sindel

But this 25th anniversary mission was extra special. Not only because Ethiopia was the country in which SACH began its international charitable work, and not only because of the patient reunion.

It was the first time SACH was back in Ethiopia since the return of Dr. Yayehyirad (Yayu) Mekonnen. After training in Israel for five years and then in Melbourne for 18 months, Mekonnen returned home to become Ethiopia’s first fully trained pediatric cardiac surgeon.

“This mission was to help him and his team members, who were also trained by SACH, to get started treating children independently,” Shapira says. “It was a very significant milestone for us.”

Dr. Yayu Mekonnen, center, with Save a Child’s Heart Africa President Haim Taib and the mother of a baby whose life was saved during the November 2019 medical mission in Ethiopia. Photo by Yonatan Sindel

It was also a significant effort of time and resources.

Members of Wolfson Medical Center’s surgical, cardiac catheterization, pediatric intensive care and cardiology units participated on a voluntary basis. They were joined by SACH leaders including Executive Director Simon Fisher and SACH Africa President Haim Taib.

The Save a Child’s Heart delegation in Israel about to fly to Ethiopia, November 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel

Eight supporters flew from the United States with SACH’s Washington-based co-president, clinical psychologist Jeff Hoffman, to assist the children and their families during their hospital stays.

The global healthcare company Abbott, through its Little Heroes campaign, provided SACH with both funding and medical devices for this mission. The Israelis brought along more than 130 boxes of equipment.

From left, Israeli nurses Marianna Genshaft and Florina Kronshtein with the mother of a baby recovering after open-heart surgery. Photo by Yonatan Sindel

“With Mission Ethiopia,” said Fisher, “we have put in place the critically needed resources to provide high-level pediatric cardiac care, including a state-of-the-art operating room, cath lab and cardiology clinic along with an amazing pediatric ICU team working together to perform medical procedures and diagnosis on children in need.”

“It’s not about us going to ‘save the Africans,’” emphasizes Shapira. “It’s about joining forces with local teams. The training, knowledge and tools we provide enable local doctors to save many more children.”

Past Save a Child’s Heart patients at the reunion in Addis Ababa, November 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel

Bemnet has a healthy heart

Each of the 31 kids treated during the recent mission has a remarkable story.

Bemnet’s story begins with a dire cardiac diagnosis at age three months. That was a year ago.

“For the past year we have been coming to the hospital every few weeks, very worried about what will happen to Bemnet,” her father related on one of the first days of the SACH mission.

“And today we are told that there is hope and she will undergo a lifesaving catheterization this week. I am so happy and grateful.”

A few days later, Bemnet went home. Her parents say she is eating and sleeping well and is full of energy. Their five-year-old daughter can hardly believe that she can stop worrying about her baby sister.

Baby Bemnet and her family in Ethiopia only days after her heart surgery. Photo by Yonatan Sindel

“The parents invited us to come see Bemnet at home. When we arrived, she was walking around happily, dressed in a white lacy dress and fancy shoes that were a little too big and kept falling off,” Shapira recalls with a smile.

Bemnet’s grandmother hugged the SACH personnel and told them — through her daughter, who translated into English — that she had prayed every day that someone would be able to save the little girl.

“I thought to myself, this is exactly what SACH is all about,” says Shapira.

For more information about SACH’s Mission Ethiopia, click here.

For general information about the organization, click here.