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Jewish Journal

Israeli Docs Save Third World Hearts

by Shaanan Meyerstein

October 7, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Inside the Mnaje Mojo hospital -- "one coconut" in Swahili -- it was absolute chaos. The place was teeming with people and I had to push my way through what seemed a never-ending crowd to get to the small room at the end of the corridor.

When I opened the door to the pitch-black chamber, the only light I saw came from a computer monitor in the back. In the top right hand corner of the screen I read the words, "Save a Child's Heart."

Two white men sat huddled together, focused intently on the screen, while a black woman wearing a burka sat on a bed holding an infant.

These are the moments that make me proud to be a part of the Jewish people.

The men, Drs. Uri Katz and Lior Sassoun, were Israeli Jewish physicians from the Save A Child's Heart organization, through which the pair travels around the world examining children with congenital heart problems and bringing them back to Israel for free surgeries and treatment. I was in Zanzibar volunteering for the group.

The organization -- now the largest project in the world providing urgently needed, pediatric cardiac surgery and follow-up care for children from third world and developing countries free of charge -- was founded in 1995, by American-born Israeli pediatric cardiac surgeon Ami Cohen.

Here we were in Zanzibar, a tiny Muslim island in the tropics off the coast of Tanzania, working in a hospital with virtually no suitable equipment and a poorly trained and overworked medical staff. All they had was the portable echo machine -- manufactured in Israel -- and their hands to treat many potential pediatric cardiac surgical cases.

And now they had the Israelis.

Lines of hopeful families extended out the door, through the hallway, into the pediatric ward, down the stairs and out into the main hospital courtyard.

They were all responding to an announcement on Zanzibari radio earlier in the week inviting parents to bring children suffering from heart problems to be examined by two heart specialists from Israel.

Occasionally, Katz and Sassoun peered out of the exam room to check just how many patients remained to be seen. This was going to be a long week -- the Israeli heart doctors committed themselves to examining every single child who showed up at the hospital.

The long lines were nothing new for these doctors. In fact, the duo -- as well as other Save a Child's Heart staff -- has become accustomed to such crowds after traveling around the world in search of candidates for cost-free heart procedures at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, south of Tel Aviv.

Since its inception, the group's staff has operated on nearly 1,000 children ranging in age from infants to teenagers. Patients, who are selected without regard to race or religion, have come from nations around the world, including China, Ethiopia, Moldova, Ghana, Jordan, Nigeria and Tanzania, as well as Zanzibar.

Nearly 40 percent of Save a Child's Heart's pediatric cases come from the Palestinian Authority.

In addition to the actual cardiac care and surgeries in Israel, the group has an outreach training program for medical personnel from participating countries.

Doctors and nurses are brought to Israel for in-depth training, and Save's staff travel overseas to educate and perform surgeries in cooperation with local personnel. The group's ultimate goal is to make partner countries self-sufficient in performing cardiac surgeries on their children.

On this particular mission to Zanzibar, the doctors were also examining children on whom they had operated in the past to see how they had progressed since their surgeries.

Still, the primary purpose of this trip to East Africa was to select new cases to bring back with them for operations.

I was especially excited to see the post-operative children: I had observed, firsthand, the open heart surgeries of several of these Zanzibari children one year before in Israel.

When I said goodbye to those kids in Holon more than 12 months ago, never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would see them again on their native island -- and certainly not good as new.

It was easy to identify the post-op children: When the doctor finished examining them, these little kids would say, "todah rabah" and "l'hitraot" -- thank you very much and goodbye, in Hebrew -- the words they had learned during their stays in the Israeli hospital.

More apparent, however, were the physical changes. I recognized the faces of children who had arrived in Israel as skin and bones, on the verge of death due to complications from their respective heart problems.

But since their surgeries, many of these children had gained 20-30 pounds and generally looked more energetic.

As an aspiring physician, it was fascinating for me to observe these doctors at work. They graciously explained to me how to read the echo machine and how properly to listen to the patient's heart and lungs to pinpoint the exact nature of the heart problem.

It was incredible to witness how these experts, after just a few seconds of listening to the heart, before even looking at the echo, were able to diagnose a particular kind of heart murmur, a broken valve, a battered-up septum, a missing ventricle or a malfunctioning artery.

Yet, there were some agonizing moments during those few days. Like the 17-year-old girl the doctor diagnosed with Esptein's Heart syndrome, a fatal heart disease that is uncorrectable.

This particular girl had developed terrible secondary complications from her heart problems that were clearly affecting her day-to-day living. She was unable to move on her own and had extreme difficulty breathing. The doctors told me that it was a miracle that she had lived this long, but she only had a few months left.

When the doctors sat with the family and explained that the prognosis was not good and their team would be unable to help, I was in tears. Like with so many other children these doctors have come across in these developing countries, if the kids had access to regular health care, perhaps their lives could have been spared with early detection and intervention. But now that their diseases had matured, the situation was beyond repair.

Yet, perhaps the most amazing aspect of my experience in Zanzibar and the Save a Child's Heart endeavor in general, was watching how, when Katz and Sassoun examined a child, they were indifferent to what the kid or his mother was wearing, whether the child's name was Abdullah Muhammed or Abrahim Rantissi Jr.

All they saw was a ticking a heart on an echo machine that desperately needed fixing.

For more information on the Save A Child's Heart organization, visit www.saveachildsheart.com.

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