Palestinian MD lauds Israel for saving children

Richter partner Danny Ritter, second from left, welcomes Save a Child’s Heart doctors, from left, Wafiq Othman, Yayu Mekonnen and Hagi Dekel to the firm’s office. [Janice Arnold photo]

MONTREAL — Palestinian doctor Wafiq Othman told a Montreal audience he went to Israel with great trepidation, unsure he could ever trust his Israeli colleagues.

But he was able to overcome his misgivings because of their common aim of saving the lives of children with heart problems who live in the Middle East and other areas where they cannot receive the surgery they need.

The anesthesiologist completed six years of training at Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), an international humanitarian program based at the Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon. He returned to the West Bank and is now co-ordinator for all the Palestinian doctors and other medical professionals who come to the renowned program to upgrade desperately needed skills.

Othman, who spoke on May 12 at the offices of Richter, has another reason to urge philanthropic support for SACH: it saved his younger brother’s life.

The boy, like many of the kids SACH treats, had congenital heart disease. He was operated on in the Palestinian territories, but was not doing well. In fact, the SACH team was not certain he was a candidate for further surgery because of his condition.

But the procedure was a success, and the 14-year-old is now well enough to be back at school, Othman said.

“When I came to SACH in 2006, it was very hard at the beginning to get used to working with Israelis, finding a way to trust and understand them. But the Wolfson team embraced me, and I quickly became part of the SACH family.”

Today, five Palestinians are training at SACH, which since its founding in 1996, has treated – free of charge – more than 3,400 underprivileged children from 48 countries, over half of them in the Palestinian territories and other neighbouring countries including Iraq, Jordan and Syria, 30 per cent in Africa and the rest in mostly developing countries around the globe.

He remembers being at the operation of a Palestinian child from Gaza during Israel’s conflict with Hamas. “A journalist was there, and he asked the surgeon, Dr. [Lior] Sasson [SACH lead surgeon], if he didn’t think he might be treating a Palestinian who would come back one day and kill Israeli children?

“Dr. Sasson said, ‘No, I think these children will come back and do peace between Israelis and Palestinians.’” Othman knew then he had come to the right place.

“I want to tell you that SACH is saving the hearts of children, but it is touching the hearts of all of their families,” he said. “A small kid does not know what is happening to them, but their mother and father do.”

The mothers often accompany the children, staying in the SACH children’s home opened in 2012. SACH also holds weekly clinics on the West Bank.

Othman was joined at Richter by Dr. Yayu Mekonnen, a 30-year-old Ethiopian general surgeon who is entering the third of his five years of training at SACH. When he returns, he will be the first pediatric heart surgeon in that country of 90 million people.

“I received a warm welcome from every member of the team,” Mekonnen said. “They are like fathers and brothers to me… To see a [formerly] sick child smiling and running around is an amazing thing.”

With them was Dr. Hagi Dekel, an Israeli pediatric cardiac surgeon who has volunteered – as all medical professionals do – with SACH for the past 10 years. He is currently in Toronto on a two-year fellowship, having just completed a year at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and about to start the second at the Hospital for Sick Children. When he returns to Israel, Dekel will be the No. 2 surgeon on the SACH team.

Their talk was an introduction to SACH for most present. This United Nations-recognized program has a Canadian fundraising arm based in Toronto, and, said its executive director Karen Diamond, activity has been concentrated there, except for a SACH students club at McGill University.

Richter, an almost 90-year-old financial services firm, its partners and staff are the honorees of this year’s Jewish National Fund Negev Dinner on June 11. Part of the proceeds will go toward the construction of a therapeutic courtyard at SACH’s soon-to-be-built International Pediatric Cardiac Centre, on the grounds of Wolfson hospital.

Dekel said SACH has grown in a way its founder, the late Dr. Amir Cohen, could never have foreseen. It began with the former marine surgeon getting two Ethiopian children into Israel for surgery. There was no funding, but Cohen firmly believed every child, wherever they were from, should be given a chance to live.

“We can and we should” was his motto.

Dekel recalled being present during the operation on a child from Gaza while militants’ rockets were dropping near the hospital.

“We are trying to change things… We hope when they go home, they will say, “‘I was in Israel, they were not so bad,’” he said.

With staff and equipment donated, SACH keeps the cost of each surgery down to about $10,000. It would be closer to $200,000 in most western countries, he said.