Israel | Mind, Body & Spirit

Fixing broken hearts in Israel

Laura Kafif, the house mother at Sava A Child’s Heart, visits with one of her charges, Zeresenay Gebru, as he recovers from heart surgery at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel, May 31, 2011. (Sheila Shalhevet/JTA Photo Service)

Just two days earlier, 8-year-old Salha Farjalla Khamis said goodbye to her parents and four siblings in her village on the African island of Zanzibar.

Now, in a hospital in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, tears roll silently down her cheeks as she watches an Israeli nurse attach the wires of an EKG monitor to her small body.

“Mama!” she cries out as the Israeli nurse, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, tries to soothe her in a language the little girl does not understand.

“Don’t cry, no pain,” the nurse says in broken English.

Khamis is on her second trip to Israel for an operation to remedy a heart defect that she has had since birth. Brought by the Israeli humanitarian organization Save a Child’s Heart, she is one of 2,600 children who have benefitted from the program launched by an American Jewish immigrant to Israel to provide cardiac surgery for children from the developing world.

The story of the effort begins in 1996, when a charismatic cardiac surgeon from Maryland named Amram Cohen started treating patients from outside Israel and using his home, and those of his patients and friends, to host them.

Since then, patients from 42 countries have been helped by the organization, nearly half of them Palestinian children from the West Bank and Gaza. Others have come from Iraq, Nigeria and Romania.

Save a Child’s Heart also trains medical staff from developing countries, and leads surgical and teaching missions abroad.

Dr. Lior Sasson, the organization’s lead surgeon and head of the cardiothoracic surgery department at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, operates on the children on his own time. He helped perform the organization’s first surgery 15 years ago with Cohen, who was then his mentor.

Just six years later Cohen, who had operated on some 600 children through Save a Child’s Heart, died of high altitude sickness while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, a country from which many of the treated children come.

This August, the organization will hold a fundraising climb in Cohen’s memory at Kilimanjaro that it hopes will bring in $1 million.

“These are children who would otherwise be doomed to die within a few years and suddenly are getting their lives back and their parents again live with hope,” Sasson tells JTA in a sunny waiting room just after completing a surgery.

“And when it comes to the Palestinian kids, you see how Palestinian families go from seeing Israelis as sworn enemies to seeing how we all join forces to save these kids together. It’s better than 1,000 diplomats. We are working with people. They get to know us, we get to know them.”

In May, the organization was recommended for special consultative status with the U.N. Economic and Social Council. If granted, Save a Child’s Heart will be able to participate in various U.N. forums, including the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Every week, new arrivals from around the world arrive at a large stucco house surrounded by palm trees at the end of a quiet, residential street in Holon — their home during their time in the country.

On a recent morning, Khamis’ group from Zanzibar arrived shortly after dawn, bleary eyed from the long trip. Children under age 4 were accompanied by their mothers cloaked in bright African print scarves and dresses. These mothers also become caretakers to the older children, who because of space and financial constraints travel without a parent.

A child’s surgery and post-operative care typically costs $10,000, all of which is covered through donations to Save a Child’s Heart.

“My baby needs surgery. She loses weight all the time. She needs to get better so she can play with the other children,” says Mati Ali, 27, who knew practically nothing about Israel before a doctor referred her to the program.

Soon the children are bundled into taxis en route to Wolfson Medical Center, where they will meet up with fellow new arrivals from Angola.

Upstairs from the African patients, Palestinian patients are attending a weekly clinic. The long corridor is filled with mothers in floor-length black dresses and headscarves holding babies.

Akiva Tamir, the pediatric cardiologist who oversees the clinic, says the Palestinian patients are fortunate because their proximity to Israel means they will be treated at a younger age, before damage from either congenital or acquired heart disease has time to intensify.

Godwin Godfry, a 31-year-old general surgeon from Tanzania, is in the midst of a six-year stint training in Israel. When he finishes, Godfry will go back to the city of Mwanza on the shores of Lake Victoria in northern Tanzania. He will be one of the only pediatric cardiac surgeons in the country.

“In our hospital alone, we have a waiting list of 300 children to be treated for heart disease,” he says, but no doctor is available to treat them.

The range of cardiac cases Godfry sees while helping treat children from the program makes his time in Israel that much more valuable, he says, because he can treat in a western setting patients with the illnesses usually found only in the developing world.

“Here you learn how things should be done,” Godfry says.

At Wolfson’s pediatric intensive care unit, most of the beds on a recent day are occupied by children recovering from surgery performed by Godwin’s mentor, Sasson.

Smiling from a bed in the far corner is Zeresenay Gebru, 15, from Ethiopia. Earlier in the day, he had surgery to replace the battery in a pacemaker he received from Save a Child’s Heart when he was 6.

“I would like to thank all the doctors and the volunteers,” the teenager says, adding that he wants to be a cardiologist. “They gave me my heart back.”