On a beautiful September morning in Holon, just south of Tel Aviv, a group of young children went out of a bright-looking building and spread around to play in its peaceful yard, under the watchful eye of several women, mostly young, some wearing traditional Islamic headscarves and gowns.
Among the children was one-year-old Leul from Ethiopia, dressed in some slightly big light blue pajamas, smiling and crawling happily from his mother to other people, sometimes attempting to stand up. Another child, two-year-old Tevin from Uganda, also walked around the playing area covered in synthetic grass and scattered with toys.
Leul and Tevin are among the current residents of the Legacy Heritage Children’s Home run by Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), an NGO whose mission is to provide lifesaving cardiac care to children who do not have access to the necessary treatment in their home countries, as well as to offer training to local healthcare staff.
The first seed of Save a Child’s Heart was planted in 1995 when Dr. Amram (Ami) Cohen, a new immigrant from the US who was serving as the head of pediatric heart surgery at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, was contacted by a colleague in Ethiopia who asked him if he could do anything to save the lives of two children in urgent need of heart surgery.
“There are many people who, when presented with a challenge, easily find many reasons to say no, but he was the kind of person who focused on finding the way to say yes,” Tamar Shapira, the organization’s deputy executive director, told The Jerusalem Post.
The children were brought to Israel and operated upon. More started to follow.
“At that time, we used to host children in our homes,” said Nava Gershon, head nurse of the pediatric surgical ward at the Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital at Wolfson, who has been involved in SACH from its beginning.
“I remember that one day I showed up at home with two patients, announcing to my husband that we would host them for a certain period, in addition to our own children,” she added.
As the organization celebrates its 25th anniversary, SACH is proud to have performed some 6,000 surgeries on children from over 60 countries, with about half of the little patients coming from the Palestinian Authority and Gaza, and another 40% from African nations.
“Our current group includes children from Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, Zanzibar, Somaliland and Gambia,” Laura Kafif said.
Kafif serves in the position of head mother at the Children’s Home, making sure that everything runs smoothly and that the children and those who accompany them have what they need.
The home opened in 2011 to accommodate patients from overseas as they wait for surgery and after they are discharged from the hospital but are not yet ready to fly home, a process that can take several weeks or more.
“In the time they are in Israel, this house is their home,” Kafif noted.
The facility includes a big kitchen, so that the mothers themselves can cook.
“This way the guests can eat food they are familiar with,” Shapira said, as the children continued to play.
Babies and toddlers are usually accompanied to Israel by a mother or a close female relative.
Older children sometimes travel in groups with one or more nurses. But as it was clear by watching the group playing in the garden, everyone is ready to lend a hand, to their own child or anyone else’s.
Leul took full advantage of the presence of many people ready to play with him and enjoyed going back and forth from one to another.
“We managed to add Leul to the latest group who arrived here at the very last moment, because we learned that he was in urgent need of care,” Shapira said. “He got here in a very bad condition. Before surgery, he didn’t smile, he couldn’t crawl or play. He needed all the oxygen his heart could pump just to survive.”
All personnel at Wolfson offer their service to Save a Child’s Heart as volunteers.
“Leul was diagnosed with a very complex heart anomaly – truncus arteriosus,” said Dr. Racheli Sion Sarid, head of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. “When he came to our hospital, he had difficulties breathing and did not gain weight. He underwent a diagnostic catheterization to evaluate if his heart anomaly was operable at all, and after that had an open-heart surgery that saved his life. He was treated in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, recovered and adjusted physiologically to his ‘fixed heart.’ Eight days later, he was finally breathing and eating like a healthy child.”
The boy came to Israel with his mother, Beliyou Endale Musura, who left two older children at home with their father.
“They cannot wait for us to come back,” the woman said. “I’m so grateful for everything that has been done for us. I can only say ‘Thank you, God.’”
“In the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit our mission as a team of doctors and nurses is to treat children in the most extreme and dangerous medical conditions and fight for their lives, no matter their origin, religion or financial situation, and we do it with all our heart,” Sion Sarid also said. “There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing a child’s and mother’s smiles when they wave to us bye-bye as they leave the intensive care unit.”
Shapira revealed that Leul’s surgery was performed by two Israeli surgeons together with an Ethiopian surgeon-in-training, an anesthesiologist from Zambia, and four technicians – two Israeli, one Ethiopian and one Palestinian.
Bringing medical staff to Israel to get trained is one of the activities carried out by Save a Child’s Heart. So far, over 140 medical staff members have participated in the program, including individuals who have gone on to set up the very first pediatric surgical teams in Tanzania and Ethiopia.
According to Shapira, they typically spend in Israel a period between one and five years.
In addition, the NGO sends Israeli teams on medical missions around the world.
In 2018 the NGO became the first Israeli organization to win the prestigious United Nations Population Award.
“The coronavirus pandemic has affected our activities, but we have continued to bring children here, in spite of the additional complications, including the need to undergo tests and quarantine,” Shapira remarked.
She said that the cost of treating each child, including the trip expenses, stands at around $15,000.
Meanwhile, the children, including Tevin, continued to play. He came to Israel accompanied by his aunt Atlanta Yvonne, and was yet to receive surgery.
“It is a blessing to be here,” the young woman said.
Tevin’s case was referred to Save a Child’s Heart by another NGO which often works with it, Gift of Life. He is also in need of open-heart surgery.
SACH HAS often managed to bring to Israel patients from countries that do not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
As the Post was visiting the Children’s Home, among its residents was also 15-year-old Nour from Baghdad.
Her mother said that she was diagnosed with a heart problem when she was around four. The family started to look into options to get her treated in various countries.
“We considered Turkey, Syria, Iran and others, but different places either did not agree to perform the surgery or asked for a sum that we could not afford,” the mother noted.
The financial condition of the family further deteriorated when Nour’s father died. A friend in London, however, connected the family with Save a Child’s Heart.
“We looked into her medical reports and we saw that Nour needed help, so we started to work to bring her here,” Shapira recalled.
The organization is used to managing cases that are challenging both logistically and politically. Over the years, it has managed to bring to Israel children from countries in very complicated situations.
“When I understood that our only chance for my daughter was in Israel, I almost lost hope; I did not believe it could happen,” Nour’s mother said. “When we got the approval, I was not only happy because finally she could be treated as she needed, but also because I had heard that Israeli doctors are really good.”
In the meantime, they had also learned of the possibility of getting the girl operated on in Istanbul, but the family chose to continue to pursue the plan to come to Israel.
“Arriving here is like a dream coming true,” the woman told the Post. “Once Nour is better, I would love to see more of the country and meet more people, and maybe one day to be able to come back just as a simple tourist.”
The 15-year-old was yet to receive surgery for a complex heart condition. In addition, she was in need of further treatment not related to her cardiac problems.
“It is important to remember that we treat children, not just their hearts,” Shapira remarked. “For this reason, when a patient arrives here with additional problems besides for their heart condition, we always work to find a way to get the help they need.”
The Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital is only a 15-minute car ride away from the house.
The medical center is housed in a new seven-story building which is in the final stages of completion, with two floors already fully operational.
The complex is set to include also the Save a Child’s Heart International Pediatric Cardiac Center, and has been erected thanks to the support of donors in Israel and abroad, including Morris Kahn, the Azrieli Foundation, Sylvan Adams and the Arison Foundation.
“Being able to support and be part of an organization which saved over 6,000 lives and still going is mind-boggling,” said Kahn, who also serves as honorary chairman of SACH International. “The devotion of the phenomenal team who lead us all by example makes it possible. In 25 years, we reached 62 countries, which symbolizes the power of medicine to transform not only lives but relationships between neighbors and nations, in Africa, the Middle East and around the world.”
IN THE pediatric surgical ward, SACH’s patients are hospitalized amid Israeli children. Among them there are also several Palestinian children. Save a Child’s Heart also runs a weekly clinic for them.
Because their commute is not long, Palestinian patients are not hosted at the Children’s House before and after surgery, but are able to do the preparatory tests and be followed in their recovery at the clinic, so they can go home as soon as they are discharged from the hospital.
When the Post visited Wolfson, two four-year-olds from Hebron were hospitalized in one of the rooms. Their mothers – both in their early twenties and with younger children at home – were at their bedsides.
Yaffa was diagnosed with a heart condition when she was in the womb, and she had already received treatment several times through SACH.
For Omar, it was the first surgery.
Asked how they felt about being in an Israeli hospital, both mothers praised the kindness of the staff and said it was natural for them to be there so that their children could receive the care they needed.
Save a Child’s Heart’s activity does not stop in moments of tension.
“During the last conflict with Gaza, the Strip was sealed and patients could not come in, but some were stuck here and we took care of them,” Shapira recalled. “Some children from the West Bank still managed to arrive.”
SACH has also trained several Palestinian physicians and medical professionals.
“It doesn’t matter where the children are from, or whether they have a language in common; after a few minutes, they are already playing together, speaking their children’s language,” head nurse Gershon noted.
“Sometimes I see mothers who arrive here with fear in their eyes, but when they leave, I believe, they become our best ambassadors,” she added. “There is nothing like watching a child who arrives here in need of resuscitations to start living again, playing like their peers and then continuing to grow up healthy.”•
For more information on Save a Child's Heart, please visit their website here.