March 17, 2008

There’s an incredible high from giving children with heart problems a new life and a new heart-shaped view of Israel to take home with them.I recently returned from an incredible adventure in Africa with an Israeli humanitarian effort that not enough people are familiar with. Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) was the dream of one gifted and caring surgeon, Dr. Ami Cohen, who could not accept that so many children in the world were doomed to die for lack of medical care that we take for granted.

I was fortunate to meet Ami early in SACH’s life and joined the newly formed board. Despite Ami’s untimely death in August 2001, climbing Kilimanjaro, SACH has survived and thrived. Seventy professionals lovingly volunteer their services, in the Wolfson Hospital in Holon, Israel, and on missions abroad, where they operate, screen, train local doctors and simply save lives daily.

My latest SACH mission, to Zanzibar and Mwanza, Tanzania, and my prior trips to China and Moldova, have been some of the most intense, satisfying and heartbreaking journeys I have had the privilege to take… as well as incredible opportunities to get to know the staff who are the real heroes.

The delegation included our head of ICU, Sion, two of our pediatric cardiologists, Alona, an Israeli, and Rula, a Palestinian doctor who trained with SACH at Wolfson Hospital over the last three years, and our director, Simon and his wife, Aviva. In Zanzibar we were joined by two German cardiologists, Anne and Caroline, under the auspices of KinderHilfe Zanzibar, which sponsored the visit.

The doctors worked in pairs and at a breathtaking pace. I was the mission photographer …a job I truly enjoyed, along with clowning for the children and the parents waiting in the halls. Aviva became my able assistant clown/photographer, giving out pens and balloons and playing with the children, while I photographed her joy and theirs.

The pressure was intense and the sheer numbers of children, veil-clad women, men in western attire, who crowded the hospital hallway that served as our examining room, was at times overwhelming. Dozens of potential patients were screened. Aviva and I would provide grapes or chocolate and water to weary doctors at necessary intervals and sometimes a back rub after 12 hours on the job.

Sometimes the most memorable moments had nothing to do with the physical heart – as when Alona, an incredible doctor with immense knowledge at her fingertips, an infectious enthusiasm and a glorious smile, told a teenager who had been operated on in Israel, that she could have children…To see the first tears of joy as that young woman heard the translation of the doctor’s words was an awesome moment that I tried to capture on film… probably a second too late.

Both Rula’s and Alona’s love and caring for each child, was always visible, whether in a touch or leaning in to speak and reassure the child or the mother.

On the third day we did about 80 post-op evaluations of children who had had surgery… many in Israel. It was wonderful to see some familiar faces among the crowds and to watch them react to a brochure we had produced for a photographic exhibit now touring the world, in honor of Israel’s 60th birthday. We had a collage of hundreds of images of children treated by SACH, and parents scanned them avidly for their own children’s faces.

One of the most moving moments was when Saida arrived with her beautiful one-year-old son in her arms… to be greeted by Sion, with tears in his eyes, as he recalled the Saida who, a mere four to five years earlier, had been rushed from the plane that landed in Tel Aviv straight to the intensive care unit. To see her now, so healthy, so serene, so glowing, was truly to witness a miracle.

For the Mwanza leg of the mission, on the shores of Lake Victoria, we were joined by Livia, an Israeli cardiologist who resides in Holland. She had arranged for the donation of a portable echocardiograph which joined the one we had been loaned by GE in Israel. This was our first contact with Bugando Medical Center (built by Israelis in the late ’70s) and we screened perhaps 50 children in the two days there. I constantly photographed the children (some of whom took photos of me on my smaller camera), their parents, the staff, the incredible views of the lake and the beautiful hospital grounds.

We flew home through Addis Ababa, where we were joined by our first group of patients from Zanzibar: eight children, ranging from one to 17, accompanied by the three mothers of the youngest children and the nurse, Aziza, who had greeted us with Shabbat Shalom on the day we arrived. They were in good spirits in the face of travel delays that even wearied us experienced travelers. At long last, we arrived home, but their adventures were just beginning.

All of the children have been in the hospital for tests and preliminary treatments and one has undergone catheterization. They are incredibly brave and incredibly beautiful… It is easy to fall in love with their shining faces… and it is an incredible high to have had some small part in giving them a new life and a new heart-filled view of Israel to take home with them. And each trip makes me so aware of my own blessings, especially my three healthy children and grandson, and being able to live in Israel, where we can and do help thousands of children from across the globe to regain life.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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