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Saving 5,000 Children’s Hearts – and Lives

By   Shlomo Maital   

Fatma – at Wolfson Hospital, Holon, Israel

   Once every two weeks, I get to pretend I am a real person, rather than just an over-the-hill economics professor, and I get to interview interesting people for a column in a fortnightly magazine, Jerusalem Report. Today, my interview subjects were rather young – about a year old.  

True, they could not speak sentences, or even words, to me – but their eyes and their smiles spoke volumes.

   These are children from Wolfson Hospital’s Save a Child’s Heart program. They come to Israel from 59 countries, mainly Africa and Asia, and they all have life-threatening defects in their hearts that require surgery. Many undergo open-heart surgery lasting for hours, to repair faulty heart valves or gaping holes in their hearts. I will never forget the little ones I saw, and hugged, today. *

Babies born with heart defects are distressingly numerous. According to US data, “congenital heart defects (CHD) affect nearly 1% of―or about 40,000―births per year in the United States. The most common type of heart defect is a ventricular septal defect (VSD). About 25% of babies with a CHD have a critical CHD. 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. But in poor countries in Africa and Asia, doctors can diagnose heart defects but often surgery to fix them is not available; and often, rheumatic fever is not treated with antibiotics, resulting in damaged hearts.

And here, begins the story of one man – the late Dr. Ami Cohen. Very often, world-changing projects are born in the heart and mind of one passionate compassionate person. Dr. Cohen studied and practiced cardiac surgery in the US, in Washington DC. He 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. That planted the seed of an idea.    In 1992 he and his family emigrated to Israel. In 1996 a friend in Ethiopia asked if he could do surgery on a small child with a heart defect. Dr. Cohen brought three Ethiopian children to Israel for remedial heart surgery in 1996, and then established a network of professionals to scale up heart surgery for children from other countries, along with a supporting foundation. The program, called Save a Child’s Heart, was based at Israel’s Wolfson Hospital, in Holon, a southern suburb of Tel Aviv. The cost of treating each baby or child is $15,000, including flights, and hospital stays. Israeli cardiac surgeons volunteer their services. The Israeli government supports the program, both financially and indirectly. And donors support the Save a Child’s Heart Foundation.  

Recently, Save a Child’s Heart celebrated its 5,000th patient — a beautiful little one-year-old girl named Fatma, from Zanzibar (see photo). Fatma’s mother, Balkis, had been treated for the same heart defect by Dr. Cohen, and Save a Child’s Heart, in 1997, as a small child. Today I asked Balkis what her dream was, for her little girl.

   “She will be a doctor!” she said emphatically. “She will be a doctor.” And I believe she will. And then, perhaps little Fatma will return to Israel to do her cardiac surgery specialty, like other African doctors I met at Wolfson.

   To date, babies and children from 59 countries have been treated, and half of them were Palestinians, including many from Gaza.

Tragically, Dr. Cohen did not live to see the thriving Balkis and her little girl Fatma. On August 16, 2001, Dr. Cohen died while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, with his daughter. He was only 47. The cause: Altitude sickness. He died as he lived – living his dreams.

   Kilimanjaro is 5,895 metres (19,341 ft) above sea level. I climbed it in 2008. Our guides took their time, spreading the climb over a full week to enable us to acclimatize to the lack of oxygen. And despite this, many in our group felt ill at the summit.   I know that other groups, with people who do not have a full week to spare, make the climb in 3 days….and this can result in severe illness or worse.    At sea level, the air is 20% oxygen.  At 19,348 feet, it is only 10% — half.  The result can be pulmonary edema (bleeding in the lungs) and cerebral edema (bleeding in the brain), which in extreme cases can be fatal.

On a plaque, in the building that houses recovering children and their mothers and fathers after surgery, are these 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.

   Why isn’t the story of saving children’s hearts and lives by Israeli surgeons known more widely? The answer is simple. The dominant media narrative is the Israel-Palestine conflict, featuring missiles, rockets, bombs and death. Other stories just don’t fit – even those about saving children’s lives, including Palestinians.

   Bad news drives out good news. I find this very sad.

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From the Web: “ventricular septal defect (VSD), a hole in the heart, is a common heart defect that’s present at birth (congenital). The hole (defect) occurs in the wall (septum) that separates the heart’s lower chambers (ventricles) and allows blood to pass from the left to the right side of the heart. The oxygen-rich blood then gets pumped back to the lungs instead of out to the body, causing the heart to work harder.   A small ventricular septal defect may cause no problems, and many small VSDs close on their own. Medium or larger VSDs may need surgical repair early in life to prevent complications”.  

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital