German and Israeli doctors partner on Iraqi child’s heart surgery

“We only use male Australian cows because they raise the cows with a high quality of inspection.”

May 8, 2017 22:54
3 minute read.
Doctor Sagi Assa operating on the heart of 11-year-old Marwan Ghazi Ali.

Doctor Sagi Assa operating on the heart of 11-year-old Marwan Ghazi Ali at the Wolfson Medical Center 8 May 2017.. (photo credit: MEDTRONIC)


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As a kid, Sagi Assa learned a bit of Arabic from his Lebanese grandmother, which came in handy on Monday, as he explained to a nervous Kurdish-Iraqi mother that her son was doing well after heart surgery.

“Your son is going to be okay,” Assa, a surgeon at Holon’s Wolfson Medical Center, told Badyia Ghazi Ali, the mother of 11-year-old Marwan, who was born with a heart defect.

The boy, who arrived with his mother from Iraqi-Kurdistan, had an artificial heart valve made from the jugular vein of a cow placed in his pulmonary artery.

Assa conducted the surgery with the help of his former mentor, German doctor Stephan Schubert, who is an expert on the complex procedure.

Marwan’s heart is expected to function properly for at least the next 10 years (heart defects usually require multiple surgeries throughout a lifetime).

Sitting in the children’s ward of the hospital, Badyia, sporting small gold hoop earrings and a black head scarf appeared exhausted and relieved as her son was slowly regaining consciousness, his heart beating around 73 times per minute. “It feels like home here,” she said. “All the doctors, all the people that prayed, all the people that helped, thank you.”

While in the operating room, classical music hummed, Doctor Assa, of the Wolfson Medical Center called the procedure the “most complicated and most dangerous” he preforms.

Along with the essential help of the Israeli and German doctors, an Australian cow also gave his life to save Ghaza Ali. The cow’s jugular vein was used to manufacture the 30,000 dollar technology (supplied to the charity at a large discount).

“We only use male Australian cows because they raise the cows with a high quality of inspection,” Eran Weisman, the Coronary and Structural Heart Business Unit Manager, for Medtronic, which produces the valve in Santa Ana, California, “to prevent mad cow disease.”

“With companies, unlike countries there are no borders," Israel Country Director Yaron Itzhari said, "We are able to cross peoples and continents to give high quality healthcare.”

Schubert said the operation went well with no complications. “He is a really nice kid and he understood what we were trying to do,” said Schubert, who heads the catheterization unit at the Deutsches Herzzentrum Medical Center in Berlin.

The surgery was made possible by Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli charity supported by private donations and the government that has provided cardiac care to over 4,000 children from 50 countries; around 50% of the children treated are Palestinians.

After an American cardiologist operating in Iraqi-Kurdistan alerted the organization to Marwan, he was deemed fit for their program and flown to Israel.

“Israel is in the situation where it has the capacity to treat all their children and and Israel has the ability to reach out and help,” said Simon Fisher, the executive director of Save a Child’s Heart. Besides providing children who suffer from heart disease with proper medical care, Fisher sees the organization as a way to promote Israel internationally. The operations in Israel create “goodwill ambassadors for Israel, and at the same time, the Israelis encounter people from Iraq, the West Bank, Gaza,” he added.

This advocacy aspect of the organization has provoked criticism from Palestinian rights groups who say that Israeli travel restrictions hamper Palestinian’s access to health services outside the West Bank and Gaza.

In the children’s ward at Wolfson Medical Center Hospital, Ghaza Ali and his mother were accompanied by other recovering children and their anxious mothers - one from the West Bank, a girl from Tanzania and another from Gambia among others. Around an hour after his surgery Ghaza Ali was able to quietly whisper “thank you” and smile for photos.

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