Just past midnight on February 14, 2008, the Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) medical team flew to Zanzibar, via Addis Ababa.
The team included Pediatric Cardiologists Dr. Alona Raucher-Shternfeld and Dr. Rula Awwad, Dr. Sion Houri, Director of the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), Wolfson Medical Center, Simon Fisher, executive director of SACH, his wife, Aviva Fisher, who took on the role of bubble and balloon master, playing with the waiting children during the three days of screening, and Debra Silver, SACH Board member, who photographed the entire mission.
They were met by two German cardiologists, Dr. Anne Susen and Dr. Caroline Rummer, who had volunteered to work with us under the auspices of KinderHilfe Sansibar and brought them to the hospital where the SACH Team would be conducting the Echo screenings. The sight that greeted the team was overwhelming, as crowds of children, some with mothers in traditional dress, with heads covered and some with fathers in more western attire awaited their arrival.
Local nurses greeted the SACH Team warmly upon arrival and then sat in the corner with all of the files, keeping detailed lists and efficiently inviting each child into the examination room as his turn came. Dr. Alona and Dr. Anne worked side by side on one side of the room as did Dr. Rula and Dr. Caroline on the other side. Dr. Rula and Dr. Alona did the diagnostic Echo Cardiograms while Drs. Anne and Caroline filled in the needed forms. At times they would consult each other or with Dr. Sion Houri who sat in the middle and orchestrated the traffic and sedated the children when necessary.
Much of the time the lights were turned off, in order to get a clear picture on the screens. When the electricity went out, which it did frequently, candles and generators were called into play. Thirty children were checked the first afternoon and evening and the team finally returned to the hotel after eight pm.
On the second day the team screened over seventy additional children, in order to diagnose their heart defects. The last 10 were all post-ops who the doctors did not have the heart to postpone until the next day…as Dr. Alona remarked…”they have been waiting for 12 hours to see the doctor”.
Dr. Alona Raucher-Shternfeld is an incredible physician with immense knowledge at her fingertips and a wonderfully infectious enthusiasm for her work. Her love and caring for each child, is always visible, whether in her touch or leaning in to speak and reassure a parent or child or her broad smile during an emotionally charged moment, when she was able to tell a teenager who had been operated on in Israel, that she was healthy enough to have children.
Sunday, the 3rd day in Zanzibar eighty more children …many of whom had been in Israel for surgery… had post operative check ups.
There were some familiar faces in the crowd, including 3 teenage boys who are in school and have hopes to study in the medical field. One of the boys, Sulum, is in the movie, Betty’s Story sponsored by Debra Silver. His photograph also appears in the Art to Heart Photography exhibition brochure, which was then passed from hand to hand throughout the waiting crowd.
The most moving moment of the mission was when Saida arrived with her beautiful 1 year old son in her arms…to be greeted by Sion, with tears in his eyes, as he recalled the Saida he had met, merely 4 or 5 years earlier, at death’s door as she came off the plane, straight to the intensive care unit. To see her now, so healthy and so happy…so serene and positively glowing, was to truly witness a miracle. As a result of the three days of screenings 45 new children will come to Israel for life saving Cardiac Surgery.
The evening of the third day the SACH Team met with the Honorary Consul of Tanzania in Israel, Ms. Ronit Hershkovitz, who told of her Zanzibar experiences, secured a discount with the local airline and arranged for subsequent media coverage. She also arranged for the group to meet with the president of Zanzibar the following day and with the minister of Health, who promised to help facilitate the passports for the children who were on the list for surgery. He did such an excellent job, that 4 days later, the first group of 8 children, 3 mothers and one nurse (the wonderful Aziza, who had been in Israel before), were waiting at the Addis airport to fly back with the team to Israel.
Due to the visit of President Bush to Africa there were many flight delays. Ronit Hershkovitz arranged for the group to visit a Spice plantation while waiting and then joined the team on the flight to Dar es Salaam. She was also kind enough to help arrange accommodation for the night, before the team boarded a flight to Mwanza the following morning.
In Mwanza the SACH Team met with Dr. Christian Schmidt, of the Bugando Medical Centre. Dr. Schmidt, head of the Pediatric department, from Germany, is a lovely man, with infinite patience and optimism. He is in Mwanza with his wife, Irene, who heads the neo-natal ICU, and their 4 children, who are in the local British International School. Dr. Alona’s brother, who works in the U.S., just happened to mention her trip to Tanzania to one of his bosses…who just happens to be involved with the Touch Foundation, which is assisting the Bugando Centre and adjoining Weil Medical School, in its development. This led to the team being hosted in their beautiful guest house near the hospital with a magnificent panorama of the lake and the town below.
In Mwanza the team was joined by Dr. Livia Kapusta, an Israeli pediatric cardiologist residing in Holland, who has joined previous SACH missions to China and Jordan and who had arranged for the donation of one of the Echo machines used on the trip. The other was loaned by GE in Israel. A tour of the hospital revealed difficult conditions for treating patients. One child, in the ICU, was given an echo exam the first day, and then Dr Sion Houri assisted the doctor in charge with recommendations for medication.
Dr. Christian accompanied the team to a working dinner with the director of the hospital, the Touch foundation representative and the director for public relations and development and one of their young surgeons, who may be a candidate for training in Israel.
The following morning cases were reviewed and more children were examined and evaluated under extreme physical conditions, in the Adult ICU. Dr. Alona also instructed many of the local resident doctors during the screenings. During this time Dr. Sion Houri was interviewed over the phone by an Israeli morning radio program and then was interviewed for another radio show.
This was SACH’s first contact with this hospital and many of the patients seen that day and the following day were either too complex or tragically past the point of being helped. After all the screenings were completed, the SACH Team met with the director of the hospital and the Head of Cardiology, where the goals of SACH were discussed as well as the ways in which we could assist the hospital, the school, and the people of the Mwanza region, which has a population of some 12 million. All in all over 50 children were screened in Mwanza over a period of two days and twelve children were deemed viable to be flown for life saving cardiac surgery in Israel.
At the Mwanza Airport, prior to the flight to Kilimanjaro on the return home to Israel, the SACH Team was interviewed by local TV and print media, along with a representative of the local airline which had so generously discounted our flights.
An especially poignant moment occurred on the flight from Kilimanjaro to Addis, when the Team was able to see and photograph the peak of the mountain, above a dense layer of clouds, where SACH Founder Dr. Ami Cohen’s life came to an untimely and tragic end. In Addis Ababa after a very long and difficult delay, the SACH Team finally boarded the flight home with Aziza, our very competent Nurse from Zanzibar, eight frightened but optimistic children and three mothers.