This surgeon has helped children get heart surgery in Israel for decades

No. 30 on The Jerusalem Post's Top 50 Most Influential Jews of 2022: Save a Child's Heart president Prof. Arie Schachner.

 Prof. Arie Schachner, president of Save a Child's Heart. (photo credit: Gil Naor)
Prof. Arie Schachner, president of Save a Child's Heart.
(photo credit: Gil Naor)

President of Save a Child’s Heart, founder of the Cardiovascular Surgery Department at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, a longtime professor at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine.

It was a picture, titled “To Saddam Hussein with Love from Tel Aviv,” in The Washington Post during the Gulf War in 1991 – showing Dr. Amram (Ami) Cohen holding two missiles that were being sent from Saudi Arabia toward Iraq in retaliation for the missiles raining down on Ramat Gan – that sold Prof. Arie Schachner on hiring the young cardiac surgeon for his new Cardiovascular Surgery Department at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon. Cohen was then serving with the US Medical Corps in Saudi Arabia.

“I set up a team, and after a year, I got a phone call from Ami, who said he wanted to make aliyah and that he knew Hebrew because he spent several years of his childhood in Holon; his father worked at the Volcani Institute designing drip irrigation. Before serving with the US Army during the Gulf War, Ami served in Korea with the military where he voluntarily operated on 40 indigent Korean children,” Schachner recalled. 

Cohen had specialized in pediatric cardiac surgery at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, but despite all his medical experience, when he contacted all the hospitals in Israel, he was turned down, Schachner said.

“I headed the Vascular Surgery Department at the Rabin Medical Center-Beilinson Campus in Petah Tikva between 1988 and 1991,” said Schachner. “Wolfson Medical Center in my home town of Holon had a cardiology department but not a cardiovascular surgery department, so I competed in a tender for the job of starting and heading one. The hospital begged that I take a patient who needed such an operation. It was a city of low- and middle-income residents, not wealthy like Tel Aviv or Petah Tikva. I won the tender, and my first patient for open-heart surgery was a 64-year-old man who had waited for it for about nine months.”

6-year-old Benjamin at the Save a Child's Heart Facility.  (credit: COURTESY OF SAVE A CHILD'S HEART)6-year-old Benjamin at the Save a Child's Heart Facility. (credit: COURTESY OF SAVE A CHILD'S HEART)

Schachner called on the Health Ministry to institute a second shift in the afternoons and early evenings so cardiac surgeons could operate at Wolfson to accommodate the many patients waiting endlessly in the queue for such a surgery – this, subsequently, was implemented in all hospitals throughout the country. 

He also demanded that Wolfson be allowed to operate on pediatric patients; such operations were until then funneled by the ministry only to the larger urban hospitals. “If you don’t agree, you are murderers because patients die after waiting so long,” he told the Knesset Interior Committee when its members discussed the issue. 

“If you don’t agree, you are murderers because patients die after waiting so long.”

Prof. Arie Schachner

Needing surgeons, Schachner met Cohen’s parents who visited Israel. “He sent his parents to Israel to see me, and I hired him. Soon, Ami co-founded the organization Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) with me and hospital director Dr. Moshe Mashiach.”

From that collaboration, the result was the impressive nonprofit organization that has operated at Wolfson on thousands of children from 65 developing countries – all at no cost to patients. It also trained local surgical teams to do operations on children with congenital heart defects in their own countries.

Cohen performed hundreds of lifesaving operations, but tragically, his life’s work ended in August 2001. He was in Tanzania on a medical mission to examine children for heart problems. At the end of the mission, he decided to climb the 5,895 meter-high Mount Kilimanjaro with his 18-year-old daughter. They made it to the summit, but unfortunately, he died in his sleep of high-altitude sickness. His daughter survived. 

“It was a challenge, and he was a man of summits. He was rather overweight, and with the thin air, he did not have enough oxygen. His African guides said that since he was a doctor, he must have known what he was doing,” said Schachner sadly. “We all miss Ami.” 

But Cohen’s dream has been fulfilled. “Most children were flown here, but we went abroad to see who was suited for the surgery. We taught doctors and nurses from Zanzibar, Ethiopia, China and many other countries to operate themselves. Children came even from Syria via Jordan, Iraq, Russia, Africa and more. Presidents of these countries have praised and thanked us for our work. The lives of some 6,500 kids were saved in operations, and many others underwent successful invasive treatments,” said the SACH president.

Dr. Leo Sasson, a pediatric cardiac surgeon who has been associated with SACH from the beginning in various capacities, is now the head of it. 

Escaping the Holocaust and making aliyah

Schachner was born in Poland and escaped to Russia with his family during the Holocaust. They made aliyah in 1949, when he was 10 years old and very sickly. He served in the IDF with the rank of major, graduated magna cum laude from Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine in 1969, and then joined Beilinson. 

He went on to fellowships in adult and pediatric cardiovascular surgery at the State University of New York in Buffalo and then founded the department at Wolfson, where he chaired it until his retirement in June 2007. He was also a longtime professor at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine.

Schachner is a member of numerous professional societies, such as the Society of Thoracic Surgeons and the International Society for Minimally Invasive Cardiothoracic Surgery, and serves on the scientific council of the Israel Medical Association. 

He has many professional business interests and is a member of the board of directors of various industrial companies. He has vast experience in bio-technical start-ups and has served as adviser to many companies. 

Overall, he has contributed to the health of countless children and adults in Israel and around the world.