To save a life…writes Henry Benjamin

June 22, 2014 by Henry Benjamin
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She is five years old, Palestinian and from Hebron. As IDF troops scour the countryside around her home searching for abducted Israeli teenagers, Eyal Yifrach, 19, Naftali Frankel, 16, and Gil-ad Shaar, 16, Suha Alkomi rests peacefully in the intensive care unit of the Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon near Tel Aviv as Israeli, Palestinian, Tanzanian and Romanian medical professionals monitor her progress following life saving cardiac surgery.

Niyas from Syria

Niyas from Syria       All photos: Henry Benjamin

For Suha’s family, the priority is to negotiate the strict checkpoint between the Palestinian section of Hebron and Israel to be at their daughter’s side as the team from Save a Child’s Heart continues its work as three families of the Gush Etzion students together with Jews around the world pray for the safe return of their kidnapped sons. Dr Sion Houri is the Director of the Pediatric Intenstive Care Unit at the Holon hospital. He told J-Wire: “In December 1995, we began operations focusing on children from Ethiopia culminating in the establishment of  the Save a Child’s Heart at the end of 1996. This was at the time of the Oslo agreement. Prior to this agreement the health of the Palestinians was the responsibility of the Israeli army but as a result of the agreement this was switched to the Palestinian Authority.” A Christian organisation Shevat Achim [Brothers Together] headed by Jonathan Miles took up the role of middle man

Ali from Jericho

Ali from Jericho

between the Palestinians and the Israeli medical authorities to maintain the continuity of health facilities between the new Authority and Israel. Dr Houri said: “As far as heart surgery was concerned, it was us and that’s how we started operating on Palestinian kids. We have kids from all over the PA’s territory and they come no matter what is happening in the region. I remember one kid arrived from Gaza and shortly afterwards a rocket arrived from the same place and destroyed a car in the hospital car park.” Of the 3,500 children who have been treated by SACH at the Wolfson Medical Centre almost half have been Palestinian.  The SACH team has operated over the years on children from over 50 countries. He added: “ A physician with the American army diagnosed over 200 children from Iraq who were treated here in Holon. There was one case of a week old baby whose life was saved because we we were able to get papers issued by our

Medical team from Israel, Palestine Romania and Tanzania

Medical team from Israel, Palestine Romania and Tanzania

ambassador in Jordan. It was not easy as Israel was officially at war with Iraq at the time.” But SACH’s activities are not confined to the Middle East. Dr Houri told J-Wire the story of an American tourist holidaying in Barbados who came across a sick child in St Vincent. He had heard of us through a TV program and made contact. He provided the $10,000 it costs to save a child’s heart and that is what we did.” SACH’s work is not confined to the patients. Medical staff from around the world also visits the centre to receive further training in the treatment of children with cardiac problems. When J-Wire visited the ICU, a tiny baby from Gaza was being treated by a physicians from Tanzania, Romania and the West Bank. The unit itself has operated outside of Israel. “We have dealt with at least 10 cases in China”, said Dr Houri.  “In Tanzania, we were able to replicate our own team and now they are taking care of children from other countries in Africa too.”

SACH treatment

Sultan from Gaza

A patient from Zanzibar with his mother

A patient from Zanzibar with his mother

The SACH program was started in 1995 by Dr Ami Cohen who died climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa in 2001. “He died from lack of oxygen and that seems ridiculous happening to a man who dedicated his life to ensuring kids had enough oxygen in their blood to live.” Talking about the current situation in the region Dr Houri told J-Wire: “I have very bad thoughts about Hebron but they do not prevent me from performing heart surgery on kids who need it. We have been treating kids from areas belonging to our worst enemies.” He added that when he was serving in the IDF he would have deemed it impossible to believe that he would be treating a Syrian instead of “shooting at him”. SACH maintains a free open clinic for Palestinian children every Tuesday at the Wolfson Medical Centre. He told J-Wire: “If you look at the news, Hebron is a closed area. But yesterday, the father of a child who had had heart surgery made it through the

from Hebron

Suha Alkomi from Hebron

checkpoints to get to Holon to visit their child and then went home.” Dr Souri told J-Wire that SACH is planning to double its facility and has plans to build a new unit from the ground up. “We need $10 million to accomplish this and we have friends the world over supporting us With the help of the Diaspora we hope to see the new facility established and to be oblivious of politics in maintaining its work in saving a child’s heart.” SACH is not focused on Israeli children whose needs are catered for by the Israeli health services. However, the organisation gets financial aid from the Israeli government in the form of reduced fees for the use of the hospital facilities. “But with the professional staff”, said Dr Houri, “it’s a case of the more we work the less we earn as it limits the time available for our private clinics.” Heart surgery costs around $10,000 per child. Dr Houri said that he believed that at any given time there are around 5,000,000 children worldwide in need of  heart surgery.

Dr Sion Houri

Dr Sion Houri

Dr Houri told J-Wire the story of a Palestinian baby who at the age of six months was extremely frail as his heart condition had totally dulled his appetite stunting growth and development. “We took a chance and operated” he said. “The the mother complained that the father could not make enough money to feed the now ravenous child.” As much as he enjoyed telling that story, Dr Houri was noticeably saddened telling the story of travelling with an Israeli team to Jordan where they examined 40 Iraqi children half of whom were inoperable. We could only take two of the forty and the rest we had to tell parents that there was nothing we could do for them and that their children were going to die a miserable death. In my normal work, I may have to give parents bad news once every two weeks but this was once every two minutes. As we returned home from Jordan I felt that all the bone marrow had been drained from my system.”

Laura Katif with new friends

Laura Katif with new friends

Laura Kafif  has worked with SACH for 18 years and is house mother to children whose homes are not readily accessible either awaiting or recuperating from surgery. Originally from Belfast in Northern Ireland, Kafif  runs a home not far from the Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon serving the useful purpose of a backup facility which eliminates a drain on the hospital’s resources. She told J-Wire: “As well as the mothers and patients, the home also accommodates doctors and nurses brought to Israel for training.

The home is frequently visited by youth groups on gap year programs from around the world who act as volunteers at the home. Laura Kafif told J-Wire: “What never ceases to amaze me is that little children from Africa are within seconds playing with the volunteers’ iPhones and have the uncanny knack of knowing how to use them even though they have never seen one before.” Asked if it was difficult to say goodbye to a child heading home after surgery she said: “Actually it’s a wonderful feeling to say goodbye.

Why? Because I watch children who had arrived very weak being strong enough to pick up their own bags and march out of the home healthy and ready to resume life in their own countries with their own families. They stay with us on average for three months. It is very satisfying to watch them gain strength after surgery.” Dr Sion Houri admits that he is often asked as to why he is helping the children of Israel’s enemies. “I consider that helping  your enemy’s children is one of the greatest pleasures in life. I cannot look at a four-yr-old child and say this is my enemy and I do not consider their family to be my enemy either. I believe that the majority of people are good people.” He told J-Wire that the only colour of people in the world he did not like was blue. “This indicates that they are not getting enough blood and need help.”

Save a Child’s Heart numbers Australia’s Pratt Foundation in Australia among its main supporters.  

J-Wire is participating in the International Jewish Media Summit in Jerusalem


6 Responses to “To save a life…writes Henry Benjamin”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    I wanted to refer this story in a comment to; Why Israel’s article, An Arab Israeli message to the world June 25th.
    Maybe someone from here will appreciate it in exchange.

  2. Cornville says:

    This little Palestinian child can get all of this free medical attention so that she can grow up to have an honorable profession like becoming a suicide bomber, or a maker of bombs. Maybe it’s best if Israel allows these children the opportunity to die without treating them, that will save a lot of Israeli lives in the future.

    • henrybenj says:



    • lee says:

      I am pretty disgusted at your comment. Every child deserves health care, without exception. My son is dead due to a health condition. In his case nothing could be done. Thankfully these children do have a chance. Life = hope. Imagine the loss to humanity if such a judgement had been passed on people like Nelson Mandella. The eyes of a child are filled with unlimited potential. For you to so easily speak of wiping clear that potential saddens me.

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