Abigail Klein Leichman
March 16, 2023

Aklil Woldegiworgis doesn’t have clear memories about her six months in Israel as a two-year-old in 2001. She arrived from Ethiopia very sick with a complex, life-threatening heart condition and underwent surgery and a long recovery.

But she grew up hearing the stories of her Israeli saviors from the humanitarian program Save a Child’s Heart, founded at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon in 1995 to treat children from countries where access to pediatric cardiac care is limited or nonexistent.

“My mother recalls and still tells me about the people who helped her here, from Laura the house mother and Vered the driver to some of the cardiologists and nurses,” Aklil tells ISRAEL21c.

Saved as tot, nurse brings African kids for Israeli heart care
Aklil and her mother after her open-heart surgery in Israel in 2001. Photo courtesy of SACH

Now 24, Aklil became a pediatric cardiac nurse inspired the role model of the Ethiopian nurse Salamnesh who accompanied her and her mother during that difficult but lifesaving half year in Holon.

This month, she returned accompanying 10 Ethiopian children needing urgent cardiac procedures.

Welcomed by Laura Kafif, the same house mother who took care of Aklil before and after surgery more than 20 years ago, the children are being evaluated at the Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital and Ida Cabakoff International Pediatric Cardiac Center for Save a Child’s Heart at Wolfson.

“I was very emotional meeting Laura,” says Aklil. “It’s hard to manage the needs of children and parents from different countries and cultures, and she does amazing work.”

Success stories

Aklil also appreciated the opportunity to show the medical professionals how well she is doing.

“I want them to see the fruit of their hands. Often the surgery is a one-time thing and you don’t get to see the patient again, but I got to pay them a big tribute,” she says.

Save a Child’s Heart cofounder Dr. Akiva Tamir, who was chief of pediatric cardiology at Wolfson Medical Center when Aklil underwent her surgery, said, “I can’t find the words to describe my feeling seeing Aklil today. She has become a strong, heathy and inspiring woman.”

Saved as tot, nurse brings African kids for Israeli heart care
Aklil and her mother with Dr. Akiva Tamir at Wolfson Medical Center in 2001. Photo courtesy of SACH

“Her decision to become a nurse and help save children with heart disease fills me with pride,” he said. “These success stories – these children we saved who are today young adults who give back to society – provide us with so much energy to continue our humanitarian work, saving our world one heart at a time.”

The completely donor-supported program has treated more than 6,000 children from 66 countries — approximately half from 32 African nations — and brought 140 local healthcare professionals to Israel for training.

Children are the purest thing

Saved as tot, nurse brings African kids for Israeli heart care
Bruria, a SACH volunteer, with Aklil when she was in Israel for her surgery in 2001. Photo courtesy of SACH

Aklil was born in 1999 in Addis Abba. A sickly baby, she was diagnosed with congenital heart disease at six months.  

The family was referred to Save a Child’s Heart, but the medical team was concerned that the surgery she needed was too risky given the complexity of her condition. In the end, however, there was no choice but to try.

Aklil not only recovered but decided to follow in the footsteps of her escorting nurse, Salamnesh, with whom she works at the Children’s Heart Fund of Ethiopia.

“Children are the purest thing,” Aklil says.

“I know how it feels to be a sick child, not being able to play and understanding that you are going to die if you won’t receive surgery. Children can feel it, even if they are too young to actually understand it.”

She also volunteers to tend to women’s and children’s health in Ethiopian refugee camps.

With gratitude

In 2019, when the Save a Child’s Heart team came to Ethiopia to perform heart surgery and catheterizations with a local team, Aklil came to a Save a Child’s Heart reunion event along with some 100 other young adults treated successfully in Israel years ago.

Saved as tot, nurse brings African kids for Israeli heart care
Aklil Woldegiworgis with head nurse Nava Gershon at the Save a Child’s Heart reunion event in Addis Abba in 2019. Photo courtesy of SACH

“One of the people I met there three years ago was Dr. Alona [Raucher Sternfeld, current chief of pediatric cardiology] and she remembered me.”

She noted that the medical professionals at SACH “are very child-friendly and even know some phrases in Amharic,” the language of Ethiopians. “They treat you as their own, as one of the family, very loving and caring.”

When the opportunity to escort a group of sick children to Israel for heart surgery was offered, Aklil didn’t hesitate. She immediately volunteered and met with all the children and parents scheduled to travel to Israel.

She reassured them that she will be there for them, exactly the same way that nurse Salamnesh was there for her in 2001.

“I am very grateful for what I underwent in Israel and for receiving a second chance at life. And I am thankful for the opportunity to give back to society and personally thank the doctors and nurses who saved me more than 20 years ago,” Aklil says.

“I thank them on behalf of my parents, because I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Save a Child’s Heart,” she adds.

“And I know that these children I am escorting today can do even more than I did when they grow up. They have a bright future ahead.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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