Volunteers saving children’s hearts

The 75 volunteers of Save A Child’s Heart have treated more than 700 needy children from Third World countries. (Photo credit: SACH)The children come from Ethiopia, the Palestinian Authority, China, the Congo, Nigeria, and the former Soviet Union, as well …

The 75 volunteers of Save A Child’s Heart have treated more than 700 needy children from Third World countries. (Photo credit: SACH)The children come from Ethiopia, the Palestinian Authority, China, the Congo, Nigeria, and the former Soviet Union, as well as from other countries. They all have something in common: Each of them suffers from heart problems, either congenital heart defects or rheumatic heart disease. Most of them cannot be treated in their home countries, which is where Save A Child’s Heart (SACH) steps in.

SACH is the largest program in the world providing children from Third World and developing countries with heart surgery and follow-up care. SACH is based at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, near Tel Aviv. The doctors and medical staff who treat these children come in on their days off, work overtime, and take vacation days in order to treat children abroad – all without compensation.

The 75 people involved in this unique project do this because they know that it is the only chance many of these children have. In the Jewish faith, to save a life is to save a world. If that is true, then the SACH team has saved many worlds. To date, they have treated more than 700 children.

When a group of children arrives in Israel, a SACH doctor meets them at the airport. The children are evaluated on the spot and in some cases sent directly to the hospital for an emergency operation. The other children are sent to a three-story villa, which SACH rents in nearby Azur. The villa serves as their home away from home during their stay in Israel, which can range from one to three months.

Dr. Amram (Ami) Cohen founded SACH in 1995. Last August he was killed while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Now, his colleagues are dedicated to continuing the project. Prior to making Aliyah from the United States with his family in 1992, Cohen was chief of pediatric surgery at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Several months before his death, the Israel Society for Medicine and Law acknowledged his work with SACH by awarding him the 2001 “Exemplary Physician of the Year Award.”

Those responsible for the organization’s work include Director of Pediatric Intensive Care Dr. Sion Houri, who is also the chairman of the medical team, and Dr. Akiva Tamir, the chief pediatric cardiologist. Both are founding members of SACH. SACH’s only surgeon is Dr. Lior Sasson, who worked closely with Cohen for nine years.

One of the most important elements of SACH’s work is the trips to far-flung regions of the world to screen and diagnose children who will undergo treatment in Israel. Local doctors gather groups of 100 to 150 children whom they believe may have treatable heart problems.

In addition to the screenings and diagnosis, the SACH team performs on-the-spot treatments while training the host country’s medical staff. Ethiopia’s only cardiologist, who has also been trained to perform closed heart surgery, was trained by SACH. In Zanzibar, the only heart ECHO technician is a SACH trainee.

It is clear that a great source of pride for all of those involved in the program is SACH’s treatment of children from the Palestinian Authority, even in these troubled times. They work in conjunction with two organizations, Light to the Nations and the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund. These organizations both refer the children to SACH and work to raise donations to help pay for the operations.

Sasson, Houri, and Tamir all pointed out the difference in the Palestinian families’ attitudes before and after the operations. The doctors explained that the families are typically scared before the operation, their wariness of being “in the lion’s den” being quite apparent. After the operation, as the families see their children getting better, there is a marked difference in their behavior and they become more relaxed. Referring to the connection with the Palestinian Authority, Houri said that Cohen used to say, “We are an island of sanity amidst the insanity.”

“We encounter the human aspect of this conflict and this is our contribution to the peace process,” Sasson said. “The people that we encounter are people you can make peace with. It is my hope that each family whose child has been treated by us will go back and become an ambassador of peace.”

SACH treats newborns from the Palestinian Authority because they are nearby, but it does not treat newborns from overseas. Most of the children from the Palestinian Authority arrive with a parent or grandparent.

Children arriving for treatment from overseas are usually older – two years old and above. SACH treats children up to the age of 18. Children who come from abroad arrive in groups of six to eight and are accompanied by a nurse or social worker who is responsible for caring for the whole group.

The doctors say it is incredible to see how these young children, who undergo major open-heart surgery, manage to get along and recover without their parents or their native language. The fact that the young patients are from developing countries presents health issues beyond their existing heart conditions.

“In the beginning it took us a while to figure out what was wrong,” Sasson said. “We finally realized that many of the children also suffer from malaria, so now they all get preventive care. They are also prone to intestinal parasites and receive treatment for that as well. Additionally, many of the children suffer from malnutrition and lack of vitamins.”

Often the children who undergo SACH treatment were previously diagnosed in their home countries as untreatable. However, there are cases in which SACH doctors have the task of informing parents that it is not possible to treat their children. It is during these overseas trips that life and death decisions are made regarding which children will undergo surgery.

“In China, I had to tell seven or eight parents a day that nothing could be done for their child – whereas in Israel, I have to do that maybe twice a year,” Tamir said. “These people have just one child, who is their whole world, and you have to sit there and, with the aid of a translator and drawings, tell them you can’t do anything for them. That is extremely difficult.”

“Our final goal is to bring these countries to the point that they can save these children on their own,” Houri said. “For every child that we save, there are a hundred other children from the same country who do not currently get treatment.”

SACH is continually struggling to raise funds for its operation, which costs about $10,000 per child. Those interested in supporting the program can donate directly via the SACH Web site.