Ahmed Hneidik is a 9-year-old boy from Khan Younis in Gaza. Born with a congenital heart disease, his chances of a life beyond the age of twelve were slim, until he underwent a life-changing heart surgery in Israel this July.
Ahmed’s mother Sabah, 47, was determined to cross any barrier to save Ahmed’s life following the death of her first son who died of the same disease.
Heart of the Matter, a program sponsored by the European Union, organized Ahmed’s journey and hundreds of other Palestinian children like him for emergency treatment in Israel.
The program is an offshoot of the Israeli organization Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) which for the past 15 years has flown more than 2,500 children from 43 countries — where adequate cardiovascular care is unavailable — to the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel.
Ahmed’s doctor, Othman Abu Salah, from Nablus in the West Bank, joined SACH’s Heart of the Matter program nine months ago. He is one of six Palestinian doctors currently being trained in Israel in pediatric intensive care.
Abu Salah said of living in Israel and being trained by Israeli doctors: “The local doctors are my friends and it has made me realize that peace could come from cooperation on these medical issues.”
SACH’s director of Pediatric Intensive Care, Dr. Zion Huri, shares this sentiment. “Peace seems to be a byproduct of this organization. When it comes to saving children’s lives, political considerations are secondary,” he added.
Nowhere is this vision more clear than at the SACH children’s home, or “Rainbow House,” in Azor, Israel. Here children from dozens of countries — such as Iraq, Romania, Ghana and Morocco — live and laugh together as they await or recover from intensive heart surgery unavailable in their home countries. Many of these countries have no diplomatic ties or are even considered enemy states by Israel, but at the house, no one seems to worry about that.
Simon Fisher, SACH’s executive director, said: “It helps that we’re dealing with what’s really important. We really are talking about the heart of the matter, which is children’s lives.”
Before and after operations, the SACH medical team, equipped with portable echocardiography machines, travels to partner sites in developing countries in order to evaluate pre- and post-operative patients together with local cardiologists.
“Before getting heart surgery, some of these children have never walked before,” Fisher said. “Save a Child’s Heart provides them with the opportunity to lead long lives, an opportunity that without heart surgery they may never have had.”
SACH was founded in 1995 by the late cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Amram Cohen. Dr. Cohen immigrated to Israel from the United States and served as Deputy Chief of Cardiovascular Surgery and Head of Pediatric Surgery at the Wolfson Medical Center.
In 1995, he was contacted by Dr. Belay Abegaz, at the time the sole pediatric cardiologist in Ethiopia, asking him for help with two Ethiopian children desperately in need of heart surgery. Now, there are three pediatric cardiologists in Ethiopia, two of whom were trained by SACH.
In 2001, Dr. Cohen died of altitude sickness while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Ten years on, a group of SACH supporters, doctors and volunteers climbed Africa’s highest peak last week, raising $1 million. Prior to the climb, 13 pediatric heart surgeries were performed in Mwanza Tanzania by the Save a Child’s Heart medical team, as well as the first ever pediatric open heart surgery.
Today Ahmed is up in his bed smiling. The operation was a success and he and Sabah are preparing to return to Gaza. For Ahmed, his first trip outside of Gaza seems to have been memorable. “He is so excited to be here, to travel” said Sabah. “For him, this trip means a lot more than just an operation.”
SACH works on donations and sponsorships – $10,000 is required to save the life of a critically ill child, according to Dr. Huri. This amount covers the cost of local transportation, hospitalization, room and board and recuperation in the Save a Child’s Heart children’s home.