November 16, 2003, Updated September 13, 2012

Dr. Uri Katz, a cardiologist in the Save a Child’s Heart delegation, examines a young patient during the team’s visit to China.Most of the staff and patients at the Hebei Children’s Hospital in Shijizhuang had never seen or met an Israeli before.

But five years of annual visits by an Israeli surgical team to perform open heart surgery on children with congenital heart defects has certainly changed that.

The delegation is part of the humanitarian project called “Save A Child’s Heart” (SACH) – a program providing children from Third World and developing countries with heart surgery and follow-up care. SACH is based at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, near Tel Aviv.

“This is the fifth time Save a Child’s heart has gone to China since 1998,” said Simon Fisher, the Executive Director of Save A Child’s Heart. After their first two trips, SACH formed a coalition with the Minnesota-based Children’s Heart Link and they journeyed together to the Gansu Provincial Medical University in northwest China, for the first part of the visit and then to Hebei for the second half. In the ensuing years, SACH focused on Hebei and Heart Link to continued working in Gansu. However this year, SACH, once again was asked to divide its time between the two locations.

According to Fisher, the 14-member Israeli team performed open heart surgery on 17 children during their two week stay in the Hebei province surrounding Beijing, and in the Gansu province. The group was led by SACH’s chief surgeon Dr. Lior Sasson, and Arieh Schachner, the director of the cardiovascular department at Wolfson.

“The idea of Save a Child’s Heart is not only to come and operate on the children, but to develop centers of competence at each partner site,” Fisher told ISRAEL21c. “China is the perfect example. They have the infrastructure, and the know-how. Every year we return we see how they’ve implemented recommendations by our team.
“It manifests itself in various fields of work – in cardiology the diagnoses are improving in accuracy, in the operating room, the complexity of the cases is rising to new levels, and in intensive care they’re showing more skills and independence. We see new equipment every year that’s been purchased upon our recommendation. It’s like the awakening of a big bear. And for us, it’s very rewarding to see this progress each time.”

Dr. Sion Houri, the Medical Chairman of Save a Child’s Heart and the Director of Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at the Wolfson Medical Center, explained that part of the learning process involves bringing over doctors and nurses to learn hands on in Israel. He said that the head of the cardiovascular department at Hibei Hospital spent 4 months in 2000 training at Wolfson.

“It’s amazing. He came to our hospital, saw our equipment, and the next time we went back there all the equipment was there. I’ve never seen people more thirsty for knowledge. They come to our see, listen and then do. There’s been great progress since we started this cooperation,” said Houri.

During the two week visit, the Israeli team offered their Chinese counterparts hands-on training in the cardiology clinic and in the operating room for doctors as well as heart and lung technicians, nurses and anesthesiologists. They also conducted a 3-day intensive PALS course – Pediatric Advance Life Support for 80 doctors and nurses.

The delegation’s work continues the mission set forth by SACH’s founder, Dr. Amram (Ami) Cohen, an American immigrant to Israel. He started the organization in 1995 and led the mission to China until he was killed while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2001.

“The only year we skipped making the trip to China was in 2001 – it was scheduled for a month after Dr. Cohen’s death,” said Fisher.
“When Ami died, it was totally unexpected and a real shock. But we made a decision along with the staff of the organization to continue the project in his name and not let it die,” added Houri, who together with Dr. Akiva Tamir, the chief pediatric cardiologist at Wolfson, has been with SACH from the beginning. “Ami came to Dr. Tamir and myself with the idea. It sounded crazy but we said, ‘why not’?”

Since its inception, over 900 children from third world countries have been flown to Israel for treatment. When a group of children arrives in Israel, a SACH doctor meets them at the airport. The children are evaluated on the spot and in some cases sent directly to the hospital for an emergency operation. The other children are sent to a three-story villa, which SACH rents in nearby Azur. The villa serves as their home away from home during their stay in Israel, which can range from one to three months.

The central element of SACH’s work are their trips to far-flung regions of the world to screen and diagnose children who will undergo treatment in Israel. Local doctors gather groups of 100 to 150 children whom they believe may have treatable heart problems.

But the annual trips to China for on-the spot treatments and training as well as trips to Ethiopia and Mauritania provide the SACH staff with a great feeling of satisfaction and the ability to spread goodwill.

“It’s sort of a bizarre situation – there are more than 50 million people in the Hibei province with about 6 million in Shijizhuang. When they hear that a group of doctors is here from Israel – a country of 6 million total – they’re pretty baffled. But they’re also receptive. Thanks to the Israeli Embassy there who sent out notices about our arrival, families traveled from all over across provinces, sometimes at distances of 1000 miles away, to bring their children to us,” said Fisher.

“After seeing us, they were sure Israel had 60 million inhabitants. Of course we had to explain to most of them what Israel was,” added Houri.

At the end of the visit, the delegation returned to Israel with a guest – a Chinese nurse who will spend 6 months at Wolfson hospital in the pediatric intensive care unit.

“It’s fortunate we brought back the nurse because we’ve been using her to call back every day so she could check on the progress of the patients we left in intensive care,” said Houri. “And now, we can say proudly, they’re all out.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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