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Addis Ababa man battling heart defect gets second free treatment in Israel

Tel Aviv doctors saved Luleseged Kassa’s heart when he was 13, and he became a sportsman; 20 years later it developed a defect and they stepped in again

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Luleseged Kassa (courtesy of Save a Child's Heart)
Luleseged Kassa (courtesy of Save a Child's Heart)

A few months ago, Luleseged Kassa of Addis Ababa was devastated to learn that his heart, which had been saved by Israeli doctors when he was a teenager, had a major defect, untreatable in Ethiopia.

The Israeli charity Save a Child’s Heart flew him to Tel Aviv when he was 13, to replace two heart valves. But when he was 33, a leaflet in one of those valves got stuck. In order words, a mechanism that is supposed to open to let blood move forward through the heart during half of the heartbeat stopped working.

He didn’t realize at the time just how serious the problem was — it could well have killed him — or that in Western countries it would have been treated with an emergency operation within 48 hours.

Now, he is recuperating in Tel Aviv, following an operation arranged and funded by Save a Child’s Heart, an organization that has saved nearly 6,000 children from 62 countries through treatment in Israel.

It’s rare for the charity’s patients to return to Israel as adults, but doctors said they felt a “moral commitment” after hearing the heart-wrenching story of the former sportsman, 33, who suddenly was struggling to even walk up stairs.

“He had a complex heart defect that could not be treated in Ethiopia, and therefore we coordinated an operation for him,” said Dr. Lior Sasson of Holon’s Wolfson Medical Center, who operated along with his colleague Dr. Hagi Dekel.

“We did so out of a moral commitment and a desire to help our patients as much as possible, even after they have grown up,” he said.

File photo: Dr. Lior Sasson (center) operates at Holon’s Wolfson Medical Center on Wednesday, December 25, 2013. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

The philanthropist Morris Kahn, honorary chairman of Save a Child’s Heart International, funded the flights, surgery and other expenses. Kassa, despite having enjoyed a successful career as a basketball player and coach, had no money to even partially cover treatment, and currently lives with his wife in a one-room apartment without electricity.

Talking to The Times of Israel shortly after being discharged from the hospital, to a recuperation facility run by the charity, Kassa said: “Once again, I can walk down the stairs. I’m so happy. Before the operation, climbing one flight of stairs took me 30 minutes.

“Being back in Israel after 20 years feels good, and my heart is slowly slowly getting stronger. I have often told people how good it was when I was here as a teenager,” he said. “I tell everybody that it’s a beautiful country where I got great care, and it’s just as I remembered the place.”

“Without this surgery he probably would have died,” said Dekel. “In hospitals in modern countries, if a patient comes with a stuck valve leaflet, which means the blood cannot come out of the heart as it should, it’s an emergency procedure the same day or the next day.

“We were able, 20 years ago, to give him the ability to live a normal life, despite problems with two of the valves in his heart that probably would have caused him to die before adulthood if left untreated. Now, it feels very right that we helped him again.”

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