The United Nations as a whole – and through many of its affiliated organizations – has shown hostility and outright hatred for anything Israeli for decades. So it was surprising and encouraging when Save A Child’s Heart (SACH), a non-political, voluntary organization based at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, was recently awarded the UN Population Award for saving the lives of more than 5,000 Third-World youngsters born with congenital heart defects.
It was the first time than an Israeli non-profit organization received the award.
“Most people don’t know that about one out of every 100 children are born with congenital heart disease. And though most of these children have correctable conditions, the majority of them will die before the age of 20 as a result of the lack of facilities and doctors capable of performing the life-saving heart surgeries or catheterization they so desperately need,” said Dr. Lior Sasson, SACH’s lead surgeon when he accepted the award from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres during an official ceremony at UN headquarters in New York. Sasson was accompanied by his colleagues, Dr. Akiva Tamir and Dr. Sion Houri.
Sasson continued that every child saved has the potential to change the world – and indeed, some have gone on to start schools and support orphans. “The mandate of the United Nations Population Fund is, in part, to deliver a world in which every young person’s potential is fulfilled. The goal of Save a Child’s Heart, as we see it, is to contribute our small part to achieving this mandate. We hope that by mending hearts we are building bridges of peace, person to person, nation to nation, and saving the world one heart at a time.”
Each year, the Committee for the UN Population Award honors an individual or institution for outstanding contributions to issues of population and reproductive health and to their solutions. The award won by SACH was established by the UN General Assembly in 1981 and first presented in 1983. It consists of a gold medal, a diploma and a monetary prize.
The organization was established in 1995 at Wolfson Medical Center with the mission to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children in developing nations and creating centers of competence in these countries and saving lives regardless of the child’s nationality, religion, color, gender or financial situation. So far, their surgeons and nurses – all working on a voluntary basis at the hospital – have saved children from 57 countries in Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, and throughout the Middle East. Half of the children they have treated are Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, which are officially and practically at war with Israel.
Every Tuesday, SACH holds a cardiology clinic for Palestinian children. Twenty to 30 children arrive at Wolfson every week with their parents, to be examined by the SACH heart physicians. Doctors accompany the children from Gaza who also come to work in the clinic with their Israeli partners.
SACH has also trained more than 120 medical personnel, including Palestinian doctors, and holds preoperative and follow-up cardiology clinics in Holon and abroad on a weekly basis. It also leads surgical and educational missions to partner countries, which include Ethiopia, Senegal, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Romania, Myanmar and Fiji. SACH is currently training at Wolfson medical personnel from Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Palestinian Authority.
The organization is now constructing an International Pediatric Cardiac Center at Wolfson that will enable SACH to save more children every year. The seven-story building, to be completed next year, will be named the Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital and also serve young Israelis in the area.
SACH’s founder, Dr. Amram (Ami) Cohen, was a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon, who immigrated to Israel from the US in 1992. He quickly established the organization, which he turned into an important contributor to children’s health worldwide. He joined Wolfson’s staff and served as the deputy chief of cardiovascular surgery and head of pediatric cardiac surgery.
In 1988, while serving in the US armed forces in Korea, the head of the international organization Save the Hearts approached him. The organization was sending orphaned and indigent Korean children to Western countries for medical care not available locally. Cohen was so impressed with the idea that he requested and received permission from his superiors to participate in the program, and during the rest of his time in Korea, performed 35 pediatric cardiac surgeries.
He joined the staff of the Wolfson Medical Center and served as its deputy chief and then director of pediatric cardiovascular surgery. The organization came into being when an Ethiopian doctor contacted Cohen after being referred to him by a mutual friend at the University of Massachusetts. He asked for Cohen’s help with two children in desperate need of heart surgery, which in fact saved their lives. Cohen died tragically in 2001 from altitude sickness while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – but SACH continued.
“Ami would have been very proud of us that we are continuing what he started by operating on young children from Gaza,” Sasson added.
Nine years ago, despite terrorist attacks on southern Israel from Gaza, a three-week-old baby named Jafar underwent surgery. Sasson, his surgeon, said Jafar – who was accompanied by his grandmother –would almost surely have died quickly after birth because he was born with a severe congenital heart defect, the transposition of the great arteries. “He is a very sweet baby. We don’t care if he comes from a Hamas family or what. He is a baby,” he said. “We have a well-oiled operation, and the security forces know us well. There are no problems, even during a war,” Sasson said.
And SACH has had the additional benefit of bringing hearts together. A poll of Palestinian relatives of children who underwent free heart surgery at Wolfson found that a vast majority “positively changed their opinions about Israel” as a result. They said that the good deed strengthened mutual trust between the two peoples. Eighty-eight percent of the relatives praised the level of medical care at Wolfson and warm contacts with the staff. When the general Palestinian public were asked whether the program brings Palestinians and Israelis closer together, they agreed. About half of the representative sample of Palestinians polled knew of the Save A Child’s Heart program. More than 80% of them were in favor of children from Gaza and the West Bank who needed heart surgery going to an Israeli hospital for treatment.
Most Israelis who were also surveyed said they favor Palestinian children from Gaza and the West Bank being allowed to come to Israel hospitals for heart surgery and catheterizations and said it was better to do it here than in other countries. A majority of Israelis (80%) said it was right for Israeli surgeons and other hospital staffers to treat these Palestinian children well.