By Sarah Simons, medical student and Save A Child’s Heart volunteer
After completing my first clinical year of medical school this summer, I volunteered for two weeks as a medical intern with Save A Child’s Heart (SACH), an Israeli humanitarian project based in Holon, Israel.
Encouraged by the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, SACH pro- vides life-saving cardiology treatment to children with limited access to healthcare.
As well as taking children from developing countries such as Zanzibar, Ethiopia and Tanzania to Israel for treatment, SACH strives to deliver full training programmes for medical professionals from these countries with the in- tention of one day establishing centres of care in their home countries.
SACH provides cardiology services including cardiac surgery and catheterisation for Palestinian children from the West Bank and Gaza and is currently training five Palestinian doctors. It relies heavily on volunteers and donations; the SACH dedicated medical team of Wolfson Hospital are on call for the programme 24 hours a day.
All the members of this team volunteer a substantial part of their time to the SACH pro- gramme as they do not receive any remuneration for services they render to SACH through the hospital. To date, more than 3,300 lives have been saved.
The SACH home is in Holon, a suburb 30 minutes from Tel Aviv city centre and commemorates SACH’s late founder Dr Ami Cohen, who tragically passed away following a climbing accident in 2001. Children stay at the house before their surgeries at the Wolfson Medical Centre, and return to the house to recover fully before going home.
I think the SACH house may be the happiest place I have ever been, brimming and bursting with an exciting mixture of cultures, languages and food. Everywhere you turn there’s a child beaming, always elated to see you and always wanting to play or have a cuddle, despite the language barrier.
Although the children are unwell and often symptomatic before their surgeries, the improvements seen afterwards are obvious.When the smaller toddlers came to sit on my lap, I could feel their tiny hearts beating as the blood pumped around their bodies, trying to compensate for their illnesses.
From a medical perspective, the procedures the surgical team perform are fascinating. Children whose mothers previously spent whole days travelling to the nearest hospital receive state-of-the-art treatment with cutting-edge technology at the Wolfson Medical Centre where 40 percent of all the paediatric patients are SACH children.
The number is limited only by the number of beds in the paediatric intensive care unit and SACH is currently fundraising to build a paediatric international cardiac centre with a larger capacity ICU. Valve repairs and congenital defects are fixed, enabling the children to go home and embark on a new lease of life. Some older children return home motivated and inspired to become doctors or nurses themselves and continue the legacy of SACH.
On the first day of the internship, I and two other medical students from Canada and America observed valve repair surgery on Jernifa, a 16-year-old girl from Tanzania who aspires to be a tailor. Her condition was so severe she was admitted to hospital at once and underwent two long and complex surgeries.
On the last day of my internship, less than two weeks later, I went to visit Jernifa on the wards to say goodbye. I found her wandering around happily, eating, drinking and chatting with the nurses, eyeing the clowns with the nonchalance of any normal 16-year-old. She summed up the SACH experience perfectly.
On the evening the tragic news broke about the murders of the three kidnapped Israeli boys, three Palestinian boys from Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, lay in the paediatric intensive care unit at the Wolfson Medical Centre after their treatment.
The following day was a Tuesday, the day the Palestinian Clinic treats children from the West Bank and Gaza. At this point political tensions in Israel were already starting to rise but SACH continued its work as it has for the past 18 years; sick children are sick children, regardless of politics.
Israel began Operation Protective Edge nine days into my internship and I noticed a difference immediately. The streets of Tel Aviv were quieter and seats on the bus were far easier to come by as people stayed at home and shied away from the usual city hotspots.
The children in the house were terrified of the siren and, for the mothers and nurses, the concept of rockets overhead was completely alien. The children’s home has a bomb shelter on every floor and I asked someone what the sirens would sound like. I was told in no uncertain terms “you will know”, and when the sirens went off, we were left in no doubt.
Towards the end of the week, some of the babies were so accustomed to the siren their faces would contort in fear as soon as it went off and they would automatically raise their arms above their heads to be picked up and taken to safety.
The volunteers, staff, children and mothers sat together in the shelters placating and calming the children with songs as some mothers observing Ramadan prayed. I came to find the booms of the Iron Dome overhead oddly comforting.
Life at the Wolfson Medical Centre went on as normally as it could with sirens echoing three or four times a day. Once I had to carry a young boy in my arms through the PICU to a safe place where some nurses had huddled as the sirens rang out.
Doctors and nurses cannot suddenly run for safety during open-heart surgery or while extubating a patient.
Operating theatres are complicated places, often difficult and, for me, always inspiring. Dr Lior Sasson and his team work with incredible skill under stressful circumstances with the poignant strains of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World playing quietly in the underground operating theatre.
My experience at Save a Child’s Heart was one of the best few weeks of my life. I did not want to leave, despite the unusual and surreal circumstances.
I’m certain I’ll return, perhaps as a medical professional, and will continue to support the wonderful work SACH does, whether there is sunshine, snow or sirens.