National Post Barbara Kay: Israeli surgeons save the lives Palestinian children as Hamas continues its rocket assault on Israel

National Post - Wednesday July 16th, 2014

David Silverman/Getty Images
In this 2007 file photo, a two-year-old Iraqi boy undergoes emergency surgery to repair a congenital heart defect at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, near Tel Aviv.

Yesterday, 13 Palestinian children from Gaza and the West Bank arrived at Israel’s Wolfson Medical Center in Holon (near Tel Aviv) to undergo life-saving heart operations. After their surgeries, they will recover in the nearby Children’s Home. By now, when the sirens announcing in-coming rockets blow, the toddlers there instinctively raise their arms for the volunteers to scoop them to safety in the protected room. But mostly they are busy doing arts and crafts or watching movies (Alvin and the Chipmunks is a favourite).

The above reads like wartime propaganda to soften anti-Israel bias, but it’s a 18-year old routine: Palestinian children have been arriving at Wolfson’s clinic every Tuesday for 18 years for treatment by the politically and religiously non-partisan international charity, Save a Child’s Heart (SACH)

In the last few weeks, SACH’s medical team, which might involve an Israeli surgeon, a Palestinian anesthetist, a Tanzanian resident and a Canadian intern, have, as usual, serviced children from the whole Arab region, including Syria, Iraq and various African countries. Half are from Gaza and the West Bank. “Children are not part of the conflict,” says SACH’s chief cardiologist, Dr. Akiva Tamir, whose Tuesday clinic takes place rain or shine. Or rockets.

SACH is a remarkable multiple award-winning NGO. Its founder was an American doctor, Amram (Ami) Cohen, whose humanity and vision matched his medical skills. Posted to Wolfson in the 1990s, he became aware of a staggering number of Ethiopian children in need of heart surgery their country’s resources were inadequate to address. Cohen flew two children to Israel, operated, then billeted them at his home for post-op recovery. Then he flew in four more, then six, then eight. Cohen lived to see his dream become an institutional reality, but tragically died at the age of 47 in 2001 while climbing Mt Kiliminjaro.

To date SACH, whose medical staff are not paid for SACH work (SACH’s entire budget is about US $4-million), has mended more than 3,200 young hearts from 46 countries, many in areas wracked by devastation, like Haiti, Sri Lanka and Syria. Their surgical early success rate of 95% is impressive, considering the risks are often higher for children from developing countries.

SACH has trained over 80 physicians from all over the globe: China, Ethiopia, Moldova, Nigeria, the Palestinian Authority, Kenya, Russia, Vietnam, Zanzibar and Tanzania. They’ve conducted more than 60 clinics abroad, evaluating 7,500 children in Angola, Congo, Jordan (Iraqi children), Rwanda and Ukraine, and elsewhere.

Jerusalem-based Christian group Shevet Achim has played a crucial role in identifying children in need of treatment — hundreds by now — from Iraq and Gaza

Because they cannot enter certain countries, Israeli SACH doctors rely on Christian organizations to act as middlemen. One particular Jerusalem-based Christian group, Shevet Achim, has played a crucial role in identifying children in need of treatment — hundreds by now — from Iraq and Gaza. The group’s members accompany and transport those children to Israel, providing financial support as needed. (Shevet Achim is Hebrew for “brothers sitting together,” an apt gloss on a Christian organization working with Jewish doctors to save Muslim children.)

SACH has affiliates in many countries: the U.S., The Netherlands, South Africa, Switzerland and the U.K. And, of course, Canada.

SACH Canada was started by the late A. Ephraim Diamond in 1999, with three board members and $60,000 in annual transfers to Israel. Today SACH Canada has 17 members on its senior board, 16 more on the Young Leadership board and annual transfers of $850,000. In a typical summer, 30 to 40 Canadian university and medical students volunteer at Wolfson or the Children’s Home. Dr. Bernard Goldman, now-retired head of cardiac surgery at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, chaired SACH Canada from 2008-13.

Which is why SACH speaks to me in a personal way. Dr. Goldman — Bernie to family and friends — is a revered figure in our family. In the early 1970s, when Bernie was a rising star at The Toronto General Hospital, he saved my father’s life. Literally. My dad’s wrecked arteries were considered inoperable by every surgeon who assessed his angiogram. He was slowly dying when Bernie dared to operate, successfully deploying the then-novel “balloon” technique he was instrumental in developing. Thanks to Bernie, my father fully enjoyed many more precious years of life.

Bernie is the lead author of a beautiful new coffee-table style book, Mending Hearts, Building Bridges, which tells the full story of SACH, with photographs of children SACH has saved that will swell the most cynical heart and give new depth to the words, “He who has health has hope, and he who has hope has everything.” That’s an old Arabic proverb.