A lasting impact on the heart

Years later, Palestinian families are still grateful for Israeli heart surgeons who saved their children's lives

Al lasting impact on the heart 521 (photo credit: MEREDITH HOLBROOK)
Al lasting impact on the heart 521
(photo credit: MEREDITH HOLBROOK)
Four-year-old Imad owes his life to an Israeli heart surgeon. And even though his father is a Palestinian living in Nablus, he is eternally grateful to the doctors who saved his son’s life.
“I don’t have anything against the Jewish nation,” he said. “Israel can have enemies, but when it comes to this kind of thing [health care], Israel doesn’t see identity. They don’t look at the ID card.”
Imad was operated on when he was just one month old, in 2008.
“Everything was very good. They took great care of us. Nothing could have been better,” said his father.
Imad received life-saving treatment through the Save A Child’s Heart foundation, an association of Israeli heart surgeons who perform free emergency surgeries on non-Israeli children, mostly Arabs from the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Iraq, as well as African youngsters.
The foundation is based at the Wolfson Medical Center, located in the city of Holon, and has been active since 1995. It has saved the lives of more than 3,000 children born with serious, life-threatening heart defects.
Last December, the foundation sent a special team into the teeming Palestinian city of Nablus, in the northern West Bank, to interview the families of some of their young patients from several years back, to better assess the long-term impact of the program.
They found that all of the families interviewed shared one thing in common – they all remained very grateful that their child had received excellent, life-saving medical care from Jewish doctors in Israel, paid for by strangers.
After a child in the program has surgery, they are encouraged to revisit the hospital for follow-ups during weekly clinics every Tuesday, but transportation, time and money are not always available. So Save a Child’s Heart decided to reach out to the families where they are, dispatching interview teams in December to visit the families of five former heart patients.
The visits consisted of questions about the children, how they are feeling now, what they aspire to be and how the family felt about staying in Israel.
After surgery, the child has to stay in the hospital to recover for usually one to two months. Over that time, the mother will stay with the child and the father will usually visit at night after work.
The families were extremely impressed with the care and hospitality they received, altering their outlook on their Jewish neighbors for the better.
“I have never felt more welcome than in Wolfson by Israelis, much more than our local hospital in Nablus,” said seven-year- old Amjad’s mother, as she sat under a photo hanging on the living room wall of her late brother, who was shot by an IDF soldier. “We are goodhearted people, and even when Jews die we hurt,” she added. “We are all humans.”
The families have not been shy about expressing to the interviewers their gratitude towards Save a Child’s Heart and to Israel, even doing so before extended family and neighbors.
The children in the five different families have had complete recoveries, with virtually no side effects or physical limitations. The relatives and neighbors have seen these children recover and grow into healthy, active youths, who then serve as constant reminders of the kindness shown by Israelis.
“My complete opinion changed of Israel because I had no idea about Israelis except for what I’ve seen from the military,” said the mother of 10-year-old Kareem, who was operated on in 2007.
“To see the help we were given, when they had nothing to do with us, it completely changed my opinion.” Today, Kareem loves to compete in track-and-field, and wants to be a fireman when he grows up.
The interviewers, outsiders with yellow Israeli license plates in a West Bank town, also felt welcome. Locals led them to each house of a young surgery patient, while policemen gave them their personal numbers should they be in need of help. Neighbors flocked to the streets to welcome them, and the homeowners showered them with gifts of home-harvested honey and tea.
Many of the families live in small, unheated concrete apartments, usually shared by six to 10 people. The state of the local health clinics and hospitals are said to be poor, with many unskilled doctors. Although these conditions are challenging, many of the local Palestinians now know they have a helping hand on the other side of the fence.
The father of 20-year-old Ibrahim explained that he almost gave up in 2001, when none of the local doctors in Nablus were able to help his son. But in 2003 they were directed to Save a Child’s Heart.
During their stay at Wolfson, many of the Palestinian families were taught by the Israeli doctors how to treat their child, using natural remedies and physical therapy such as massages. Lillian, now seven, stayed at the hospital for six months in 2005 after being operated on a month after she was born. Her father recounted how the doctors taught them to treat their daughter by giving her oxygen and back massages. He learned about general medicine from spending time in the hospital and observing the procedures.
“The hospital in Nablus is terrible,” he confided. “We appreciate Wolfson very much – the care, medicine, experience and all. The care we received doesn’t even compare.”
Lillian had a heart defect from birth, and her parents and the local doctors did not know what was wrong. When she would cough her face would turn blue, explained her father. When a local doctor found her, he told the family she would die within 24 hours if she did not get proper help.
Within hours, they received permission from Israel and the hospital, and she was rushed to Holon and underwent emergency heart surgery at Wolfson.
Now, Lillian has no symptoms and wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
“Everything was beautiful. It couldn’t have been better, and we felt at home,” said her father. “They loved us like how I love my daughter. Israelis care!” Accepting help from Israelis was not a hard decision for these families when it meant saving their children’s lives, as each family expressed that there is more to life than separation borders.
Although the families were nervous and fearful at the beginning of the journey into the heart of Israel, they are now eager to share about their positive experience with others.
As the mother of 10-year-old Kareem insisted: “It doesn’t matter what you were in the past, it matters what you are now.”