The Humanitarian Group Saving Children, One Heart at a Time

Ben Winsor
on August 21, 2020

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“Our Israel” is a J Street initiative which spotlights amazing Israeli groups who work tirelessly to build a better future for all Israelis and Palestinians. They are on the front lines of the struggle to build a society that lives up to the founding values and ideals of equality and democracy enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

6-month-old baby from Gaza. Lama's surgery was the first since the introduction of travel restrictions to and from Israel due to the Corona virus were imposed.

The seven-month old girl was blue when she arrived from Gaza. A hole had formed in her heart and she was losing oxygen rapidly.

Her arrival at the Wilson Hospital in Israel, just south of Tel Aviv, had come just in time.

As her mother waited anxiously outside, surgeons with Israeli group Save A Child’s Heart worked to repair the damage. The team repaired the child’s heart, fitting a small pediatric valve that would expand as she grew in the coming years, reducing the need for follow-up surgeries.

After hours of surgery, color had returned to her cheeks.

“She’s now in recovery,” Jeff Hoffman, Co-President of Save A Child’s Heart’s American team, tells J Street from Israel. “She’ll stay a few more weeks and then return to Gaza.”

Over the last two decades, Save A Child’s Heart has performed more than 5,400 similar pediatric cardiac surgeries for children from over 60 developing nations, with approximately half their caseload consisting of Palestinian children from Gaza and the West Bank.

A non-political NGO, the organization has garnered support from across the political spectrum. Donations come from grassroots fundraisers as far afield as Denmark, Australia and Canada. Donor institutions have included the European Union and USAID, both of which recognize the group’s work not just as a humanitarian effort, but as a peacebuilding project.

“Although we’re a purely humanitarian organization, we’ve found that our impact has really extended beyond just the humanitarian side,” says Executive Director Rabbi David Litwack. “We always knew intuitively that we were having an impact upon Palestinian attitudes towards Israelis and visa versa.”

“When you have a Palestinian mother sitting next to an Israeli mother in a waiting room as their children are undergoing pediatric cardiac surgery, you have a bond that’s instantly created,” he tells J Street.

Above: Hospitals in Gaza suffer from shortages of equipment, supplies and expertise, as well as battling frequent blackouts and brownouts.

For children with cardiac issues in Gaza and the West Bank, it’s urgently needed support.

Dana Moss, International Advocacy Coordinator for the Israeli NGO Physicians for Human Rights, told J Street that the 54-year occupation and ongoing blockade of Gaza “has resulted in a fragmented health system that cannot meet the needs of the local population, especially, but not only, in the Gaza Strip.”

The blockade of Gaza, which includes restrictions on free movement of critically ill patients, urgent medical equipment and key medical specialists, has been a top target of criticism for Israeli, Palestinian and international advocates. “This has a direct cost for the health and well-being of Palestinians that human rights and humanitarian organizations see on a daily basis,” Moss says. “Ultimately, this situation can only be remedied through the ending of the occupation and the lifting of the blockade.”

Save a Child’s Heart itself was started in 1995 by American cardiologist Dr Ami Cohen, who had made aliyah to Israel after serving as a doctor in the US military. Before then, when he was posted to Korea in 1988, he had assisted with surgeries of children in the local population. Years later, word had somehow reached doctors in Ethiopia who were struggling to treat two local children with cardiac issues.

The doctors made contact with Cohen and asked if he could perform the necessary surgeries in Israel. Cohen said yes, housing the children in his own family home. It was just the first of a series of surgeries Cohen would perform for children from disadvantaged countries around the world.

Several years later, after Cohen died from altitude sickness climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, his medical colleagues decided to carry on the work.

Today, Save A Child’s Heart has helped thousands of children from countries from Uzbekistan to Zanzibar, and is training doctors around the world in order to build capacity and expertise. Before COVID-19 struck, the group also ran a weekly Palestinian clinic, screening 20 to 25 Palestinian children a week.

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The importance of the group’s work is recognized by the Palestinian Authority itself, with Save a Child’s Heart earning itself an exception from the PA’s usual reluctance to openly coordinate with Israeli groups. In 2012 the PA committed to a coordination memorandum with the group, having helped the organization gain consultative status at the United Nations the year earlier.

Litwack says it was a somewhat surprising turn of events at the UN that day. As the vote to confer status was taking place, Syria voiced opposition to the Israeli NGO being recognized. “What swung the day was the representative of the Palestinian Authority,” Litwack says.

“They got up and said what an amazing organization Save a Child’s Heart is, the tremendous impact it was having on the Palestinian medical infrastructure, and in creating the medical infrastructure for a future Palestinian state.” Their support was seconded by the representative from Venezuela. “That was also really shocking at the time,” Litwack says

With the Palestinians having cut coordination ties with Israelis as a response to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s West Bank annexation plans — a move which has placed numerous critically ill patients in jeopardy — it’s coordination which has been forced under the table.

As COVID-19 continues to place increased strain on health systems in Israel, the occupied territories and around the world, Save A Child’s Heart is continuing to provide urgently needed care. The group is currently training a Gaza resident who will become the territory’s only local pediatric cardiologist, a critical need in light of unpredictable border restrictions.

“This is one of the organizations that really exemplifies what Israel was meant to be,” Hoffman says, “a light unto the nations, and really serving the world in the way that we’ve been able to do it here.”

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