HOLON — The drive from the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis to Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, a Tel Aviv suburb, went rapidly and smoothly for Haniyah Sha’er and her two-year-old granddaughter Hala Aradha.
A 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire in Operation Protective Edge allowed toddler Hala to keep her biannual appointment at the hospital’s pediatric cardiology department. When she was eight months old, Hala underwent surgery at Wolfson to treat her for congenital heart disease. Having made a full recovery, on Tuesday she became the first Gaza patient to return to the hospital following Israel’s ground operation, which lasted from July 17 to August 5.
Hala is one of nearly 300 children treated yearly in Wolfson through Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children from developing countries. Since its establishment in 1995, SACH has provided care to over 3,000 children aged 0-18, mostly from Africa and the Arab Middle East.
“It was nerve-wracking to come here in these conditions,” Sha’er told The Times of Israel. “If things would be like before, with war and missiles over our heads, we wouldn’t have come. But now there’s a three-day ceasefire and things are good. People in Khan Younis come and go and the market is open.”
At first, Sha’er said that her neighborhood in downtown Khan Younis was unaffected by the Israeli operation, but her countenance told a different story. When questioned further, Sha’er broke down in tears and said that one of her daughters and a grandson had been killed two weeks earlier in an Israeli shelling. A second granddaughter present in the house that was hit in eastern Khan Younis was badly burned and taken to Al-Maqasid hospital in east Jerusalem.
“I sat next to her in the hospital for ten days,” she said.
Despite her palpable pain, Sha’er said she had no qualms about bringing her granddaughter back for the routine checkup in Israel. “What can we do? When a child can’t be treated there [in Gaza] they send it to Israel. They [the Israelis] take good care of it. They treat us well, with no discrimination, thank God.” The grandmother said she would go to great lengths for Hala and her twin brother, born to her daughter through IVF treatment in Egypt after 16 years of infertility.
In addition to operating on sick children from across the world, Save a Child’s Heart also trains doctors, surgeons and medical staff from developing countries to be able to treat the children locally, in a project it dubs “creating centers of competence.”
Randi Weiss, Leadership Director at SACH, said the training program at Wolfson aims to create a sustainable solution for the problem of children with cardiac diseases in the developing world. “Almost 1 percent of children worldwide are born with a congenital heart defect,” she noted. “Many of them need surgery just to survive.”
“We train entire teams, so that not every single child from Tanzania needs to fly here for care. They can be treated by local doctors in their local hospital,” Weiss said.
Khaled Obeid, a pediatrician from Salfit in the West Bank, is one of four Palestinian trainees currently specializing at Wolfson. He said the Palestinian Authority’s health ministry sent him to the hospital for a three-year program to specialize in pediatric cardiology.
“We don’t have this specialty in the West Bank,” Obeid said. “Working here is excellent.”
Overseeing the entire operation at Wolfson is Akiva Tamir, head of the pediatric cardiology department. He said then when he started working with Save a Child’s Heart 18 years ago, there was only one children’s cardiologist in the entire Gaza Strip. “At the time, the level of diagnosis was low. It was pretty much a desert,” he said.
But over the years, the level of medical professionalism in the Palestinian Authority, and in Gaza, has improved. “There’s lots of positive communication with doctors in Gaza,” he said. “They call regularly to consult with us, they refer patients, we call to inquire about them.”
Tamir, who sees himself as the torchbearer of the program established by Wolfson doctor Ami Cohen who passed away in 2001, said his entire staff — irrespective of political orientation — shares the vision of medical cooperation intrinsic to Save a Child’s Heart.
“It’s completely natural for me to treat Palestinian patients,” he said. “I always stress that as doctors we have one mission we are committed to, which is helping human beings. We make no distinctions.”
Tamir was doubtful whether the years of treatment and training would significantly mitigate the bloody political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but said he was sure it had an effect on the families personally involved. The level of trust placed in the Israeli doctors by the families of the Palestinian patients impressed him, he said.
“It’s not obvious. I don’t feel I can submit my child for treatment at Shifa hospital [in Gaza], even though my friends there would take care of him very well,” he said. “But I’m not sure that’s the norm there.”
“I don’t know if what we’re doing has a global, historic effect, and to be honest I don’t really care. I behave the way I see fit as a human being and as a Jew.”