HEBRON, West Bank — Bundled up and clutching a red water bottle, four-year-old Muath stood outside his Hebron home on Sunday, the first warm day since a blizzard rolled through the Levant. His father, Mahmoud Abu Danash, a stocky man with a few white wisps in his bristly black mustache, set his jaw and steeled himself for a nerve-wracking trip.
Muath, the youngest of Abu Danash’s nine children — was about to go under the knife. At the Holon’s Wolfson Medical Center, in central Israel.
Muath was diagnosed with congenital heart disease when he was 6 months old. His mother, distraught after having lost two infant sons following failed cardiac surgery, starved herself to death. (Abu Danash’s two brothers also had infants who died of congenital heart disease, suggesting a possible genetic predisposition.)
There was no way Abu Danash, unemployed, could afford to pay for the operation necessary to try to save Muath’s life. He and his family of 10 live in a modest but tidy and brightly decorated three-room apartment in Hebron’s Harta Sheikh neighborhood, a tangle of unnamed alleys and potholed streets in the West Bank’s largest city.
Standing by the yellow Palestinian cab at the gate was Dr. Wafiq Othman, a jocular pediatric anesthesiologist who works with Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), an Israeli nonprofit that provides essential cardiac surgery to children from around the world. Muhammed, a nurse from Hebron who works twice weekly at Wolfson, joined as translator.
“It’s a life or death situation,” Abu Danash said, pain evident on his face. He said Muath’s imminent surgery reopened old wounds from the loss of his other two children and his late wife. He voiced thanks for SACH’s gift to save his son’s life and expressed hope that – inshallah, God-willing – all would be alright. He said such charitable works are “essential for any society.”
SACH, the brainchild of late American-Israeli cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Ami Cohen, offers life-saving heart surgery for children from developing countries which lack the know-how, facilities or funds to operate locally. The children are flown into Israel from locations as disparate and distant as Tanzania and the Philippines, and are treated at Wolfson at little or no expense to the patient’s family. According to its official literature, approximately 50% of the 250 children who receive medical care through SACH each year are from the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Iraq and Morocco.
The organization’s The Heart of the Matter program provides training for Palestinian physicians and nurses — like Othman and Mohammed — so they can bring their expertise home and build needed medical infrastructure. With funding from the European Union, private donors and foundations, The Heart of the Matter provides treatment for Palestinian children in an effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together through medical care. The EU funds The Heart of the Matter though its Partnership for Peace program, which finances projects that improve the lives and welfare of ordinary people and promote communication and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.
Such life-saving medical interaction stands in sharp contrast to the escalating tensions of recent days between Israel and the Palestinians, with a series of terror attacks and West Bank clashes fueling talk of a third intifada.
Earlier on Sunday morning, Abu Danash had retrieved a permit issued by the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories granting him, Muath, and the boy’s stepmother entry into Israel. Now, the three stood in the sun-dappled courtyard, still covered in patches of snow, with the entire extended family before setting out for Holon.
Two Arabic words were on everyone’s lips — mustashfa and mushkileh — hospital and problem. Hearing the former, Muath emitted a tiny whimper. His sister, brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles crowded around to say goodbye.
Leaving Hebron’s mangled roads behind, Abu Danash, Muath, his stepmother Lubna — who opted to go by the name Umm Muath in solidarity with the child — and the rest of our group traveled to the Tomb of Rachel checkpoint outside Bethlehem. The Palestinians passed through unhindered and piled into a waiting hired van. (This correspondent, on the other hand, was briefly held up by the Israeli police for illegally entering Area A.)
“I learned some Hebrew while I was in the hospital,” Abu Danash said, turning to me in the van soon after we entered Israel. “I don’t speak much, but enough to understand.” As the van cruised downhill from Jerusalem toward Tel Aviv, he twiddled his cellphone and gnawed nervously on a knuckle. Muath was calm and gazed out the window.
No amount of bright colors and playful pictures can make a children’s ward happy. Entering the brightly lit hallway, Abu Danash and Umm Muath were greeted by a Palestinian woman who immediately identified the family as fellow Hebronites. Last Thursday night this woman and her six-day-old baby had been rushed to Wolfson for emergency heart surgery. Doctors operated on the tiny infant hours before Muath arrived, and the child lay on a gurney in the intensive care unit alongside African and Israeli children.
Muath, scared and wailing softly, sat on Lubna’s lap as he underwent an initial inspection by the nurses. He joined a covey of tiny children from around the world brought to Wolfson for emergency cardiac surgery unavailable or unaffordable in their home countries. Simon, a curly-haired lad from Tanzania, his sister and mother stood in the hallway as Abu Danash and Lubna calmed their son.
“I don’t know what will happen. I’m scared,” Lubna said. “I will feel better when he gets out of the hospital.”
Muath was set to undergo surgery Wednesday morning, and would then be expected to remain at Wolfson for about a week to convalesce. The Times of Israel will follow-up on his progress.
Abu Danash, noticeably anxious as I turned to leave, said he felt ill. He walked with me a little way along the hospital corridor, out of earshot. ”I hope it all goes well,” he said, and then slowly walked back toward his child.