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June 24, 2021 5:16 pm

‘They All Play Together’: 35 Children From West Bank, Gaza and Around the World Find Life-Saving Heart Care in Israel

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kosovo, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and Zambia are some of the countries from which children have come with their mothers and caregivers to undergo life-saving heart treatments in Israel, through Save a Child’s Heart. Photo: courtesy SACH

A Tel Aviv-area medical center is now treating about 35 children from around the world for life-threatening heart conditions, in what is largest group of patients brought to the country by Israel-based non-profit Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) since the coronavirus pandemic began.

The children — hailing from Gaza, the West Bank, Ethiopia, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Kosovo — include babies, toddlers, and teenagers, who are often accompanied by a guardian or parent. After arriving in Israel they quarantined under Israeli Health Ministry guidelines, before receiving free heart disease treatment at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon.

“It is our mission to bring children from developing countries and places where they can’t get or can’t afford life-saving treatments. Over half of the children whose lives are being saved in Israel are from the Palestinian Authority and Gaza. Doctors in Israel volunteer their time to conduct the heart surgeries,” Tamar Shapira, deputy executive director of SACH told The Algemeiner in an interview. “For us they are little ambassadors. We tell a different story of Israel which is not political.”

Following the treatment, the children and their guardian recuperate under medical supervision in the SACH’s children’s house, also in Holon. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the group treated an average of almost 400 children a year in Israel.

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“The children stay in Israel for two to three months before they can return home and some we bring back for further treatments as needed,” Shapira said. “They all play together in the children’s house even though they don’t understand each other, as they speak different languages.”

Founded 25 years ago and backed by South African-born philanthropist Morris Kahn, SACH has saved the lives of more than 5,800 children, the group says, with Israeli doctors providing open-heart surgery, life-saving catheterization and other care to children from 62 countries. In 2019, SACH’s 5000th child was treated — one-year-old Fatma from Zanzibar, and the daughter of Balkis, who was treated in Israel over 20 years ago for the same heart defect.

Every Tuesday, SACH also hosts a free clinic to screen, diagnose and follow up with children from the West and Gaza, reaching several hundred children per year. One child, Mahmad, was first treated in Israel when he was just ten months old back in 2005; he continued to seek follow-up care at the clinic for Palestinian families, and later received a cardiac catheterization treatment in 2019, followed by another surgery this year as a 17-year-old.

To help further meet the global need for pediatric cardiac care, SACH also runs medical training programs in Israel for doctors and nurses from developing countries so they can return to their home countries within one to five years. The current cohort includes five Palestinian physicians, Shapira said, and recent attendees have included Dr. Yayehyirad (Yayu) Mekonnen Ejigu — who finished a five-year pediatric cardiac surgery training program at the Wolfson Medical Center and returned to Ethiopia last year as the country’s first fully-trained pediatric cardiac surgeon.

To date, SACH has trained over 140 medical staff from a host of countries including China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kenya, Moldova, Nigeria, the Palestinian Authority, Romania, Russia, Tanzania and Vietnam.

“We are trying to do our ‘Tikun Olam’ as an Israeli society to make this world a better place not only for our children, but also to help other children,” said Shapira. “A child is a child no matter where they come from.”

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