When little Yacob arrived with his father in Israel on Feb. 14 he was rushed from the airport to the hospital for emergency surgery. The 2-year-old Afghani boy, who was born with tetralogy of Fallot, a rare and complex congenital heart defect, was already blue. And he was dying.
One month later, Yacob, who is the size of a 9-month-old baby and doesn’t yet crawl or walk, was full of life and beaming at his father and the parade of Israeli and foreign visitors who came to see him. He is expected to make a full recovery.
Yacob’s surgery, his and his father’s plane tickets and the child’s recuperation were funded by an Israeli charity called Save a Child’s Heart (SACH). Based in Holon near Wolfson Medical Center, SACH provides free surgeries for children from developing countries — children who otherwise would’ve likely died. SACH helps obtain visas and travel documents for people coming from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq which do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
In addition to the heart surgery, SACH has a warm, child-friendly housing facility where patients from other countries can live, with their parents, before and after their surgeries when they are released from the hospital. A doctor makes rounds at the home to check on the patients and a communal kitchen is constantly buzzing with parents cooking up ethnic fare.
In the home and on the operating table, race and religion shed their boundaries. Israeli Jewish and Arab doctors operate on children from 50 countries, many of them Muslim.
The patients from Muslim nations sometimes balk at the idea of coming to Israel at all since their countries usually view Israel as an enemy state. Sometimes the mere mention of Israel can threaten a family, let alone coming to the Jewish state. But in the end, families choose to do so, even in secret, because their children’s lives depend on a life-saving surgery they couldn’t get at home.
SACH teams up with Shevet Achim, a Christian organization, to help families crossing into Israel from Syria, Jordan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
According to their website, Save A Child’s Heart has treated more than 4,000 children from 50 countries suffering from congenital and rheumatic heart disease, from infancy to 18 years of age since 1995.
“The annual number of children we treat has grown dramatically from 48 cases in 1996 to over 260 in 2015,” the website reports.
In addition to providing urgently needed pediatric heart surgery and follow-up care, SACH is training pediatric cardiologists in countries where the heart surgery is unobtainable.
Yacob’s family hails from the mountains of northern Afghanistan. For two years the child failed to thrive, not eating much and crying constantly. Because of a lack of medical expertise for his specific cardiac condition, it took time for the family to get a diagnosis. One doctor there, through various connections, connected the parents with the right people and eventually that led to SACH in Israel.
Dr. Hagi Dekel, the Israeli cardiac surgeon who operated on Yacob, said the child will “live like any normal boy.”
Ironically, a community of Jewish Afghanis who speak Dari, live near the Save a Child’s Heart facility and were able to communicate with Yacob’s father, who has not been named in the media for safety reasons.
Yacob’s father told the Times of Israel he had no real concept of Israel before he arrived, but he was more worried about the difficult journey than the destination.
“When I got [to the Wolfson center], and saw how each child is cared for by two nurses, I decided I wasn’t going to worry,” he said.
Now he has big plans for his son.
“I am going to tell him how he caused me a lot of grief, so he will have to study hard and become a doctor,” he said.