Save a Child's Heart creates small miracles

“I owe my life to this incredible NGO."

By SHLOMO MAITAL
July 12, 2019 08:00
Save a Child's Heart creates small miracles

Balkis and her daughter, Fatma, from Tanzania. (photo credit: SACH)

 
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Miracle! Do we use that word too often?

A miracle is a surprising and blessed event that we cannot fully understand or explain by science – so we attribute it to God.
The fact is there are miracles, and they are almost all created by amazing human beings seemingly divinely inspired.
I recently encountered a small miracle – in fact, a whole lot of them – at Wolfson Medical Center, located in Holon, a working-class city of 200,000 just south of Tel Aviv. There, I met little one-year-old Fatma, whose megawatt smile can easily light up an entire dark city.
 
Fatma is a double miracle. She was born in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous archipelago that is part of Tanzania. She had a congenital heart defect. Her prospects at birth were dim.
 
Tanzania is a large East African country of 56 million people. It does not yet have sufficient resources to fix complex defects in babies’ hearts. So Fatma was brought to Israel with her mother, Balkis, by Save a Child’s Heart (SACH). She was the 5,000th child whose lives were saved by this rather miraculous program since it was founded by the late Dr. Amiram (Ami) Cohen in 1996.
Fatma, a small miracle, has recovered beautifully from her heart surgery. Fatma had a fetal blood vessel that should have closed right after birth. But it didn’t. This drew blood from the lungs and made it hard for her to breathe. A lot of calories were burned up by her added effort to breathe, and Fatma also tended to contract pneumonia. Before surgery she weighed only 13 pounds – 35 percent below normal for her age.
 
Why a double miracle? Fatma’s mother was born with the same congenital heart defect. She was treated as a baby by Cohen in Israel, in 1997, and today she is a happy, healthy mother.
 
“I owe my life to this incredible NGO,” Balkis said. “And now that they have saved my baby, I owe them my happiness as well. We are going back to Zanzibar soon, but a piece of our hearts will always stay in Israel.”
I asked Balkis,  “What are your dreams for your little girl?”
 
“She will be a doctor!” she said, without hesitation, and smiling broadly. And for emphasis, she repeated it, “She will be a doctor!”
I heard this same dream from several other mothers of children treated by this program. The miracle of giving life to a small child, doomed otherwise to premature death, inspires those who experience it to urge their children to pass it forward. Perhaps in 25 years little Fatma will return to Israel to do her cardiac surgery specialty, like other African doctors I met at Wolfson.
 
The SACH team not only heals children, it also trains medical team surgeons so they can return home and heal children themselves. Tanzania’s first pediatric surgeon, Dr. Godwin Godfrey, trained at Wolfson; and I met Dr. Ziwa Mudaniso, a doctor from Zambia doing a cardiac surgery residency.
 
To date, babies and children from some 60 countries have been treated at Wolfson. Approximately half of the children – 2,500 – are Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Iraq and Morocco. At the end of June, SACH hosted an event with its European Union partners to celebrate saving the lives of more than 2,000 Palestinian children.
 
“For the past 15 years, the EU has generously funded our Heart of the Matter Program with more than $3,000,000 in support of our belief that by Mending Hearts we are actually building Bridges whilst sharing knowledge between Israeli and Palestinian practitioners and creating endless encounters between Israelis and Palestinian families focusing on the common goal of improving pediatric cardiac care for Palestinian children,” SACH said in a statement.
Dr. Ami Cohen, founder of Save A Child’s Heart (Credit: SACH)
 
The event was attended by EU Ambassador Emanuele Giaufret as well as the management of Wolfson and Save a Child’s Heart, Israeli medical team members, Palestinian team members from the West Bank and from Gaza, past Palestinian patients and their families, and Save a Child’s Heart volunteers and supporters. 
 
According to SACH, 610 Tanzanian children have been brought to Israel for life-saving surgery, while another 132 were treated in Tanzania by SACH medical missions. Tanzania and SACH founder Cohen are forever linked together, as I will explain later.
I visited SACH at Wolfson Hospital just after the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, known to Christians as Pentecost. Shavuot is known as the festival of hesed – grace, or lovingkindness. On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth, the story of Moabite Ruth’s hesed toward her mother-in-law Naomi, and the hesed of Boaz toward Ruth and Naomi.
 
In the pediatric ward and intensive care unit, I found enormous hesed. Often, world-changing tikkun olam (repairing the world) projects are born in the hearts and minds of a single passionate, compassionate person, such as Ami Cohen, who practiced cardiac surgery in Washington, and served as a doctor with the US Armed Forces in Korea in 1988, where he joined a program that helped poor local children with heart disease.
 
In 1992, Cohen and his family immigrated to Israel. Four years later, a friend in Ethiopia asked if he could do surgery on a small child with a heart defect. In an act of hesed, Cohen brought three Ethiopian children to Israel for remedial heart surgery, and then established a network of professionals to scale up life-saving heart surgery for children from other countries, along with a supporting foundation. The result was an NGO called Save a Child’s Heart based at Wolfson Hospital in Holon.
 
In its early days, children recuperating from surgery were housed for several months in Cohen’s own apartment, while they underwent post-operative care. Today a Children’s House exists in Holon that houses 30 children and their mothers during their three-month post-operative period. It was funded by the Legacy Heritage Fund.
 
The cost of treating each child, borne by SACH, is $15,000, including flights and hospital stays. Israeli medical team members, cardiac surgeons, volunteer their services. Similar pediatric surgery in the US costs an average of $93,000, according to a medical journal report, and can cost more than three times that sum. The Israeli government supports the program, administratively, but mostly it is donors who support the Save a Child’s Heart Foundation. Only in Israel! 
 
Babies born with heart defects are distressingly numerous. According to US data, congenital heart defects (CHD) affect nearly 1% – or about 40,000 – of births per year in the United States. The most common type of heart defect is known as ventricular septal defect (VSD) – a hole in the heart. About a quarter of babies with congenital heart defects have a life-threatening prognosis. Infants with critical CHDs generally need surgery or other procedures in their first year of life.
 
In the US, Europe and Israel, babies born with heart defects generally get remedial surgery, or their births may be aborted if prenatal ultrasound reveals serious heart defects. Babies and children who contract rheumatic fever get antibiotics, which prevents rheumatic heart abscesses. 
 
In poorer countries, rheumatic fever in babies is often not treated with antibiotics, because they are not widely available, resulting in damaged hearts. In many countries in Africa and Asia, doctors can diagnose heart defects, but surgery to fix them is often not available.

Dr. Lior Sasson with a child from Romania (Credit: SACH)
 
Pediatric heart surgery is itself a small miracle. For more than two decades, heart surgeons have known how to insert a catheter – a thin flexible tube – into a vein in the child’s upper thigh, and thread it into the child’s heart. The catheter has a small device folded inside it, like a tiny umbrella. When the catheter reaches the problematic hole in the heart, the device inside the catheter unfolds and plugs the hole. Then the catheter is withdrawn from the body. And in half a year or so, normal tissue grows over the device.
Sometimes open heart surgery is needed. The child is placed on a heart-lung machine, which replicates the heart and lungs in pumping and oxygenating blood. The surgeon then fixes the hole in the heart with a special patch, the heart-lung machine is disconnected, and the heart begins to beat normally.
 
I spoke with Tamar Shapira, director of International & Public Relations. She had just returned from a mission to Tanzania, where a team of Save a Child’s Heart doctors and nurses screened children for possible surgery in Israel and provided follow-up for those who had undergone surgery in Israel earlier.
 
Shapira has worked for SACH for 11 years. I found that many people on the SACH team have served for many years – the rewarding glow from saving children’s lives acts like Super Glue.
 
I asked why Save a Child’s Heart is not better known around the world. After all, saving children’s lives – what could be more powerful, more impactful on our emotional heart strings?
“It’s hard to sell a positive story,” Shapira explained.
 
How sad that is. Foreign media send journalists to Israel to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which the dominant narrative is rich and powerful Israel victimizes poor helpless Palestinians. Stories that don’t fit that narrative are ignored. Perhaps Israel should try a whole lot harder to disseminate its good-news stories to the world.
 
“This is Zionism in the 21st century,” Shapira told me. “We in Israel are part of the global village. We must give, as well as take. We need to share our knowledge.”
 
Later, I spoke with Simon Fisher, a lawyer and executive director of SACH for the past 17 years, who made aliyah from the UK. He told me that while SACH is an NGO, it benefits from working closely with government ministries. The Interior Ministry helps approve entry documents for Palestinians, as does the Foreign Ministry for African and Asian citizens. The Defense Ministry also helps.
I asked him what his biggest challenge is in running SACH.
“Raising money,” he responded.
 
To treat 700 children a year, SACH needs at least $10 million. Among the major philanthropists who contribute to SACH are Morris Kahn, founder of Amdocs and the principal financier of SpaceIL, Israel’s moon mission; Sylvan Adams, the Canadian real estate tycoon who made aliyah in 2015 and who brought the Giro d’Italia bicycle race to Israel and Madonna to the Eurovision contest in Tel Aviv; the Azrieli and Arison Foundations; the Legacy Heritage Fund and the Helmsley Charitable Trust, two New York-based foundations, along with a great many other smaller donors.
 
The 5,000 children to whom Save a Child’s Heart has given life are truly impressive numbers – especially when considering the Talmudic dictum that “he who saves a single life it is as if he saved an entire world” (Sanhedrin, 37). But alas, the need worldwide to repair young children’s hearts is immensely greater than the means to meet it.
 
About 1.35 million babies are born with congenital heart disease each year globally, or one in every 100 births. A quarter of them need surgery to survive. Most of these can lead normal, productive lives if they are treated in time. However, 90 percent of these babies live in regions where medical care cannot fix the problem – and hence the vast majority of them are doomed.
 
By chance, when I visited the Children’s House, I met a group of opera singers from the Israel Opera who came to entertain the mothers and their children. I watched as singers sang operatic arias from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” to an attentive audience comprised mostly of Muslim mothers wearing hijabs, some with infants in their arms. It was surreal.
Only in Israel, I thought. Only in Israel.
 
At Wolfson, Tuesday is Palestinian children’s day, when 20 to 30 Palestinian kids arrive with their parents at SACH’s free cardiology clinic. Some remain and undergo surgery.
 
For example, I met Aous, a handsome dark-eyed little Palestinian boy from Jenin recovering from life-saving surgery, and his father. I wished I could speak to them in Arabic – but Aous’s eyes said it all.
 
Once again, I thought this could only happen in Israel. I could not help but recall Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, and the incursion of the IDF into the Jenin refugee camp that July, with heavy loss of life among both soldiers and civilians. This followed the Park Hotel suicide bombing by Hamas in Netanya in March 2002, which killed 30 civilians and injured 140.
 
“To be able to put aside politics and help a human being in need – a child is the miracle the doctors at Save a Child’s Heart perform every day,” said Dr. Lior Sasson Hasson, the head cardiac surgeon.
 
Israel’s healthcare system is in deep trouble. Here is how Prof. Naomi Chazan, former deputy speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, described its woes in a recent blog:
“There is hardly one facet of the public health system that is not in a state of disrepair: the number of beds is inadequate; the doctor-patient ratio, once one of the highest in the world, is at an all-time low; the availability of the latest instrumentation outside a handful of major hospitals is wanting; accessibility to advanced medical treatments in outlying areas is meager; everywhere demand outstrips supply; and, sadly, the scarcity of resources favors the rich and the connected at the expense of the disadvantaged and the disempowered. The ranking of the quality of Israeli medicine is among the highest in the world; its availability is diminishing constantly.”
 
Given this disastrous state of healthcare, should not Israeli doctors and nurses focus on caring for sick Israelis rather than foreigners? Is Save a Child’s Heart misguided?
 
I received a ready response to this query.
 
“The aid to children from around the world,” Fisher said, “is never at the expense of local Israeli kids. In fact, a new children’s medical center being built at Wolfson through the efforts of SACH will treat all pediatric patients from the greater Holon area.”
Shapira showed me the brand new seven-story pediatric hospital, the International Pediatric Cardiac Center, due to be completed in 2020. Save a Child’s Heart is responsible. The new facility will serve both Israeli children and those from abroad, and it would not have happened were it not for SACH.

Dr. Akiva Tamir with Aiman from Gaza, and his mother (Credit: SACH)
 
I met Nava Gershon, head nurse of the pediatric surgical ward, who has worked at Wolfson for 30 years. Her family originally immigrated to Israel from Lebanon, and she speaks fluent Arabic. Many members of the Wolfson staff know enough Arabic to manage day-to-day interaction with Arab-speaking patients.
 
I asked Gershon how she endures the stress of caring for very ill young children, who suffer. She replied that she is optimistic, because children are remarkably resilient and have amazing recuperative powers. I saw this myself firsthand. Once their hearts are fixed, the children thrive; the small miracles become big ones.
 
On June 27, 2018, SACH was awarded a prize by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the first time an Israeli nonprofit organization received the UN’s Population Award. Three of SACH’s top physicians – Dr. Lior Sasson, Dr. Akiva Tamir and Dr. Sion Houri – were in New York to receive the prize. At the time, a Syrian diplomat complained about the UN accolade, citing Israeli atrocities in Gaza. The chutzpah of the murderous Assad regime, responsible for many thousands of children’s deaths, is mind-boggling.
 
Tragically, Cohen did not live to see the thriving Balkis as a mother, and her little girl Fatma, healed and happy, or the vast majority of the 5,000 small miracles. On August 16, 2001, Cohen died while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his daughter. He was only 47. The cause: altitude sickness. He died as he lived – living his dreams.
 
On a plaque in the Children’s House are these memorable words:
“Our dear Dr. Ami Cohen, We love you very much. We will miss you, but never forget you as you will always play a special place in the new hearts you gave us. We pray that your dream will continue to grow and touch many more children all over the world. God bless and reward you for bringing joy to our families and countries. Love from Save a Child’s Heart children.”

Fatma returned to Zanzibar in early July (Credit: SACH)
 
On July 3, 2019, the Wolfson Medical Center bade an emotional farewell to Fatma and seven other children from Zanzibar whose lives were saved at the hospital. “We are beyond grateful for all of their successful recoveries as they make their way back to Zanzibar!” it said.
 
Just before Fatma left, her mother, Balkis, said: “I am very thankful that today we are going home and Fatma can see her father. Thank you so much to Save a Child’s Heart for everything, all the volunteers, doctors, donors and all who are involved. God bless you!” 


The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com

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