A Life-Saver Downunder

Israeli-trained Ethiopian surgeon Dr Yayu in Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital

In 2018, an Israeli non-profit organisation received the United Nation’s Population Award for the first time. The award went to Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), a humanitarian organisation that seeks to improve the quality of paediatric cardiac care for children in developing nations, as well as to create centres of competence in those countries. It was founded in 1996 by the late Dr Ami Cohen at the Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon, Israel, with the goal of saving children with heart disease in developing countries, regardless of nationality, religion, race, gender or financial situation. This vision has now become a reality with SACH having treated more than 4,900 children with congenital heart defects from 57 countries across Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East.

Uniquely, SACH has been granted special consultative status by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (ECOSOC) and has established partnerships with organisations around the world including in Australia, US, Canada, UK, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Korea, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. SACH has even treated children from countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel, such as Indonesia, Iraq and Syria.

The organisation continues to grow, having now nearly finished construction of a new seven-storey international paediatric cardiology centre, called the Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital, which will also serve the local Israeli population.

In addition to caring for children from around the world, SACH also holds preoperative and follow up cardiology clinics in Israel and abroad, sends missions to partner countries, and offers a comprehensive training program within Israel for doctors and nurses from developing countries. In all, they have already trained more than 120 healthcare workers so far. 

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr Ejigu Yayehyirad Mekonnen, known as “Dr Yayu”, who trained with SACH in Israel, and is set to become Ethiopia’s first paediatric heart surgeon. Dr Yayu is currently being sponsored by SACH to complete an 18-month fellowship with the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) in Melbourne, before returning to Ethiopia next year.

Dr Yayu tells me that he was inspired to become a paediatric heart surgeon after meeting a bright eight-year-old girl, who was unable to have life-saving treatment because the operation she desperately needed was not available in Ethiopia. He said that was a “turning point” that led him to apply for training with SACH in Israel because “if we had that kind of care, children like her could have been saved.” 

Dr Yayu with a patient in Israel

Dr Yayu describes his training in Israel as a “memorable five years” where colleagues became “buddies and family”. He recalls that the training was also “very intense” because the SACH team at the Wolfson Medical Centre work around the clock to receive children coming from around the world for treatment. He said, “I was part of the [SACH] team as a trainee to take care of these kids surgically. I wouldn’t have found that training anywhere else. For example, if I was working in Germany, I wouldn’t have those kinds of patients come in with those conditions that you see in Africa, in Germany. So you would treat German kids in that community, but you can’t really bring that knowledge back to Africa because the disease conditions are different. 

“What happens in Israel is very unique. In the way that these kids come from Africa to Israel, and when I go back I’ll see the same disease conditions, and this helps my training.”

For example, rheumatic heart disease, the most common acquired heart disease, has virtually been eradicated in developed countries but continues to kill children and young adults in developing countries.

Dr Yayu believes that Ethiopia can learn much from what Israel has achieved in the medical sphere. He notes that, 30 years ago, Israel did not have an efficient cardiology program, but today Israel has developed an enviable program that is “serving kids from across from the world.” He said it shows that “if you work hard on what you believe in you can make anything possible.”

 

Over 23 years, SACH has helped save 629 Ethiopian children, trained 10 Ethiopian medical professionals, and conducted screening, surgical and training missions in Ethiopia. SACH’s efforts in Ethiopia are helping to create independent institutions that can provide quality indigenous paediatric cardiac care. The Ethiopian Government is also assisting this progress, with the Ministry of Health currently constructing a new hospital in Jimma that will include the first-ever paediatric cardiology centre in the city. 

When asked what brought Dr Yayu to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, he said that aside from his wife being from Melbourne’s Jewish community, and the opportunity to spend time with her family, RCH is “one of the best centres in the world for paediatric cardiac surgery”, and that it has a “reputation for training so many good surgeons across the world.” Dr Yayu commented, “it makes me complete as a surgeon to have part of my training here.”

Dr Yayu also recalled how training with SACH enabled him to see barriers break down between people. He said one of the most “striking” examples, was when SACH provided medical treatment to Palestinian children. Every Tuesday, 20 to 30 Palestinian children arrive with their parents at SACH’s cardiology clinic where they are examined for free by SACH heart physicians. Dr Yayu said, “That is the epitome of what medicine should be. You treat your patients regardless of who they are and where they come from – colour, religion, background – that goes out of the window. It was a beautiful experience to see that happening in Israel.”

He is looking forward to returning to Ethiopia next year and leading a paediatric cardiology program. He said, “I’m super excited to go back and see what I can do with myself. I’ve been in training for a long time. It time to put all that experience into action where it is most needed.” 

He said that one of the challenges he anticipates will be organising a team of doctors, nurses and technicians to provide a complete medical team for surgery. However, SACH has already trained three other medical staff who have returned to Ethiopia, and is currently training three more in Israel who plan to return. 

Australia’s Pratt Foundation has pledged funding to support Dr Yayu’s medical team training with SACH in Israel. This includes training in paediatric intensive care, anaesthesiology, paediatric cardiac nursing, and perfusion. 

While Dr Yayu may face some challenges, he is also optimistic that the opportunities will be endless for the children who will now have access to life-saving treatment. 

He follows in the footsteps of past SACH efforts to provide properly trained and equipped pediatric cardio-surgical teams for developing countries – and Australian groups have also often been important in assisting these past efforts. 

A Tanzanian medical team is led by Dr Godwin Godfrey, who trained for five years in Israel with SACH and is now the first and only paediatric cardio-surgeon in Tanzania. SACH trained a full paediatric cardiology team, comprising paediatric cardiologists, an anaesthesiologist, a perfusionist, and a nursing team to support Dr Godfrey. Their training was also made possible thanks to the support of the Pratt Foundation. 

Since the return of Dr Godfrey to Tanzania, he and his team have performed surgery on 200 children, and an additional 300 children were operated on by Dr Godwin together with surgeons from visiting delegations from Israel, Australia, Italy, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. 

SACH also introduced the Tanzanian capacity-building project to additional international organisations including Australia’s Open Heart International (OHI). OHI now sends an annual mission to Tanzania for teaching and to provide treatment, working with Dr Godfrey. 

In addition to Ethiopia and Tanzania, SACH is currently training medical personnel from Kenya and the Palestinian Authority, with the intention that they will return to their homes to provide quality paediatric cardiac care. Australia’s Waislitz Foundation recently pledged $1 million over 10 years to support a fellowship program for physicians from developing countries to train with SACH.

When the news can seem a little gloomy, it is people like Dr Yayu and organisations like SACH that can inspire Jews and non-Jews alike to remember the wisdom of the Jewish principle that “whoever saves a life, it is as if he or she saves a whole world.”