SLEEPING SOUNDLY in the children’s intensive care unit at Wolfson Medical Center (WMC), Holon, near Tel Aviv, is two-year-old Muqadam Suleimani Siraji, a Tanzanian boy who has just undergone major heart surgery.
My instinct is to reach out and hug him, assuring him he’s going to be OK. I watch him for a couple of minutes. Best leave him sleep. He’s in good hands.
Muqadam is one of more than 4,000 children from over 50 countries who have been brought to Israel for life-changing heart surgery over the last 20 years as a result of the work of Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), an Israeli humanitarian project that has saved many lives ‒ the majority of them Muslim ‒ and hopes to save considerably more in the years to come.
A team of leading Israeli surgeons and cardiologists, along with other health professionals spanning the range of medical expertise required for often high-risk major heart surgery on children, donate their time to SACH.
It’s an extraordinary example of altruism in a world ever more driven by personal financial gain. In return, doing what they do and seeing what they collectively achieve appears worth more to the admirable medical professionals involved than money can buy.
“The real heroes are the children, though,” Tamar Shapira, SACH Director of International and Public Relations, tells The Jerusalem Report. “They often come here from remote villages, many without parents, having never before seen a plane or many other things from the modern world. They go back healthy and we see them as ambassadors for SACH.”
From the lounge of SACH’s Legacy Heritage Children’s Home, just a few minutes from the Wolfson Medical Center itself, I watch kids both pre- and post-surgery playing in the garden. They’re being entertained by local and international volunteers who donate their time to make the youngsters feel welcome. Jewish youth groups from around the world and young Israelis, too, often make a point of visiting the home to appreciate the outreach of this unique project and help in any way they can.
In these days of BDS, given the ongoing and ever present demonization of Israel in much of the international media, I wondered whether SACH has evolved into something more than a humanitarian project ‒ one that not only saves hearts but possibly changes minds at the same time.
The organization has held a regular weekly clinic for Palestinian children every week for the last 20 years through Israeli-Palestinian wars, terror campaigns and intifadas. More than half the children who have received surgery are Palestinian, yet, sadly, I am unaware of its work being highlighted in Palestinian media or the wider Arab world.
“It’s hard to say how much is reported in the Palestinian territories,” acknowledges Shapira, a former news journalist who reported on many conflicts and war zones. “I can tell you about the families who have come here, often with great fear, to what they are told is their enemy. When there is no other way to save your child, that is what you are going to do.
“At SACH we see ourselves as representing Israeli society,” she explains. “You’ll find people here from [the political] left, right and center, and from different religions. Some are religious, others not at all. They’re all here for one cause ‒ saving the children. It’s important to understand that we don’t have a political agenda, however, I always say that if by saving the children we manage to narrow gaps between different people, then that is beneficial for everyone.”
Palestinian kids and their families find themselves alongside Israeli families in the same situation ‒ there is no separation at Wolfson. A mother from Gaza will find herself sharing a room with an Israeli mother.
Many find they share the same fears, learn about each other and begin understanding what they have in common.
“If this isn’t building bridges, then I don’t know what is,” contends Shapira. “She will go back to Gaza, and she will go back to Tel Aviv, and hopefully remember. I see it every day.”
A SLEEPING child in a stroller a couple of yards away from me is no regular SACH patient. He’s from Afghanistan, a country with no formal relations with Israel. The 15-month-old boy requires major surgery. Pakistan and India apparently chose not to help him, but Israel, through SACH, was prepared to do everything possible to save him.
Flown in via Turkey, the little boy and his father had the ill-fortune to land in Istanbul just as the violent July coup attempt broke out. The chaperone/translator who had flown especially from the US to assist was unable to reach Turkey direct. In a “trains, planes and automobiles” scenario, she eventually managed to get there and, in an encouraging display of cooperation between Israeli and Turkish officialdom, a special visa was arranged.
Within 24 hours, the boy, his father and their American helper safely reached Israel despite the chaos and bloodshed in Turkey at the time.
The Afghan father shakes my hand, conveying his gratitude through the few English words he knows. “Everything is OK. I am happy to be here. They are good people.”
It’s a very touching moment.
For more than 14 years, Irish-born Laura Kafif has been house mother for the organization.
She’s in charge of the home where the children stay, often accompanied by a parent or a local nurse who speaks their language and prepares food they are familiar with.
“Our dream was always to have our own SACH home and that came true four and a half years ago,” Kafif says. “It made the job so much easier having a purpose-built center.
There is much more space but I have nearly a full house; 60 people, not just children, but also their mums, overseas doctors and nurses-in-training, volunteers and medical interns. They really are like my right and left hands. We normally have up to 25 children at one time here in the house.”
Two questions struck me in seeing all these brave and endearing children. First, are they being treated at the expense of Israeli children with heart issues? “SACH is not for Israeli children,” Shapira clarifies. “Israeli children have health insurance and receive very good medical care.
This program is specifically for children who come from other countries. We raise money to cover the cost of their treatment, the training of doctors and nurses, as well as all operational costs. In fact, the program is very much for the benefit of Israeli children because SACH has led to a big improvement in the pediatric heart unit at Wolfson Hospital, known today as one of the best in Israel. We raise funds constantly to update the equipment to benefit, first of all Israeli children, but also SACH children.”
My second question relates to not seeing any Palestinian children among the many at the SACH home.
“The Palestinian children do not stay at this house. They are considered the same as Israelis. They have their surgery, stay in [the] hospital, then are released to go home and come back for follow-up assessments. Iraqi and Syrian children don’t stay here either. We have a house belonging to another partner charity ‒ Shevet Achim ‒ that also houses children from Gaza. Traditionally, the Iraqis come with a father. It would be complicated having fathers here with mothers sharing bathrooms, etc.”
The kids have come into the house after playing in the garden and are ready for lunch.
I spot two boys with cheeky faces. Both are from Tanzania, both are 15 years old and have successfully come through heart surgery.
Rashidi is crazy about football, while Hamidu, likes all sports. They’re full of smiles and tell me they are very happy in Israel.
They certainly look good, but more than anything else are keen to have their photos taken. That opens the floodgates as the room fills with kids ‒ some shy, some very outgoing ‒ who also want to be photographed.
Eleven-year-old Nazifa from Ethiopia gives me a big grin and is joined by other children, including from Gambia and Zanzibar.
There’s a very special, uplifting atmosphere in this house.
Those around the world who support the project include SACH foundations in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Holland and Switzerland, among others, as well as the international Rotary organization and many more contributors. They will soon see their funds establish a state-of-the-art specialist children’s hospital at the Wolfson Medical Center (due for completion toward the end of 2018) that should be a significant boost to the care of Israeli children, especially those in south Tel Aviv, Bat Yam, Jaffa and Holon.
It is hoped that SACH will then raise the number of operations performed annually on overseas children from the current 250 to around 400.
SACH was the brainchild of the late Dr. Ami Cohen, a US-born heart surgeon whose experiences operating on children during his time in the US military in Korea in the 1980s inspired him to establish a pioneering project in Israel, a country he later made his home.
Cohen, who founded the project at Wolfson in 1995 just a few years after making aliya, died in 2001 at the age of just 47 while hiking on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
It appears he was not only a medical visionary, but also a man of considerable powers of persuasion.
“Ami Cohen originally approached me in 1995 with his crazy idea,” Dr. Sion Houri, director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Wolfson, told me. “By this point, Dr. Lior Sasson, now lead surgeon and head of cardiothoracic surgery, was also on board.
“We had amazing cooperation from the CEO of the hospital at the time, Dr. Moshe Mashiach. It wasn’t easy, but the kids survived us and went safely back home! When we first went to Ethiopia and saw the kids who had been so sick running and playing as normal, it was very special. They had suddenly come back to life. It’s not even back to life, because they were never really there,” the engaging Houri remembers.
“Here at SACH, there is no financial interest. Indeed, it’s actually the other way around, because we have doubled our workload without changing our salaries ‒ which says something about how smart we are ‒ because the idea is that it is not for the money.
“I came here from Tunisia when I was 15, I was a soldier in ’73 during the war, became a pediatrician ... and now SACH is the cherry on the cake of my professional life. It is amazingly gratifying. If someone had told me back in ’73 that I would be helping Syrian kids I would not have believed it, but we have operated on more than a dozen from Syria, as well as hundreds from Iraq, and a large number of Palestinian children.”
AMI COHEN’S vision for helping children extended to not only bringing them to Israel, but to treating them in their own countries.
“He wanted to help those countries that have no cardiothoracic services for children,” recalls Dr. Akiva Tamir, head of pediatric cardiology at Wolfson. Tamir is another member of the original team who established SACH and has trained and encouraged younger Israeli doctors who are ready to succeed him when he retires.
“Ami wanted to build [overseas] centers of competence by training physicians and nurses, doing clinics with them, bringing children for treatment in Israel, and, if their local system allows, go there and operate and teach them that way, too.”
Tamir explains that because of the early diagnosis of heart issues in Israeli children, it is extremely rare to see kids with advanced conditions that have not been tackled. However, the opposite is true in the case of many children from Third World countries who present with often challenging medical issues.
“Take Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF). Before age 10, most will die. TOF is an obstruction to the arteries of the lungs. There are different variations, but we see cases that come to us with only a thread of blood reaching the lungs. You don’t know how they are alive and survived the flight. An Israeli child will almost always be operated on before six months of age, before you barely know he is sick. It is a condition that is easily diagnosed.”
Paraphrasing the John F. Kennedy line, I ask Tamir not what he has done for SACH, but what SACH has done for him? It’s a question that seems to take him momentarily by surprise and he repeats it softly under his breath. “It’s given me my whole life,” he eventually responds. “I think it has given more meaning to what I do and taught me to look in a different way at people who are different from you.
“If you read the papers, you would think all Palestinians are terrible people ‒ they send their children to be bombed, they have no heart. You see these TV news clips with a mother saying, “My son will be a shahid [martyr], blah blah,” but what you see here in this clinic is that Palestinian mothers love their children like we love ours.
“You see them as human beings, not as terrible creatures. You come to understand that it is all politics and that people really are the same all over the world. They want their children to be healthy and they want to see grandchildren. These are the basics.”
But not all kids can be saved, especially those whose serious heart issues have either been undiagnosed or left unattended.
“There was one particular clinic we did in Amman, Jordan, seeing Iraqi kids,” says Tamir. “Out of 30 children that we saw that day, 13 were inoperable. This was one of the hardest days I have ever known. One of our team was too emotional to tell the parents, so Dr. Houri and I had to pass on the message to the parents that their child could not be helped. Thirteen sets of parents in one day! It is so rare in Israel that we have to tell someone their child cannot be helped, but in our project it is not so rare when we go to clinics abroad.
“Some of the kids are old enough to understand,” Tamir adds, shaking his head. “They look into your eyes and know when you are not able to offer them anything.”
Joining us in Tamir’s office are Yifat Brosh, a pediatric endocardiography technician, and Dr. Sagi Assa, an interventional pediatric cardiologist. They spoke of the conditions they have encountered on SACH field trips around the world, recalling that, just a year ago in Zanzibar and purely by chance, the first 15 kids waiting in line to be seen were all inoperable. It was clear that experience had left its mark.
“I can tell you that before I had kids it was great treating children,” Brosh recalls, “but when you have your own kids and you see a kid lying on a bed and he is the same age as your healthy child at home, it is difficult. A child is a child is a child. I don’t look at his parents or his [political] leaders. A sick child needs to be treated. End of story. That’s it.”
I put it to the three skilled medical professionals facing me that work such as theirs should surely change negative perceptions if people would only look beyond the anti-Israel spin and, in some cases, anti-Israel indoctrination. Their answers ran the gamut of optimism, cynicism and realism.
“I agree,” says Brosh, “but changing perceptions is very hard. I feel that, whatever we do, it is so little it can never affect the number of things we need it to affect.”
Assa adds, “I was working in Berlin. I came back because I wanted to live in Israel and be part of this team and part of a program that can flourish and succeed. We offer our time and work together with all the volunteers. You’re getting to work in a great atmosphere for a much bigger goal than yourself. You get to treat the most interesting cases from different cultures. This really is a winwin situation.”
“We are all Zionist Israelis,” concludes Tamir. “We all served in the army and believe in what Israel is here for. We’re happy to show the good face of Israel.” Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. His website is www.paulalster.com and he can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster