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Tanzania, Israel Partner in 'Crown Jewel' of Life-Saving Missions

CBN News image, Jonathan Goff

DAR ES SALAM, Tanzania – The tiny country of Israel has an abundance of world-class doctors and surgeons. But they're not keeping their medical expertise to themselves.

Pediatric cardiac specialists from Save a Child's Heart recently traveled to East Africa to provide life-saving heart surgeries to desperately ill children in Tanzania, as well as to help develop that specialty there.

Dar Es Salam is Tanzania's largest city. Home to more than 50 million people, this East African country has only one hospital for heart patients.

Last year, the Jakaya Kikwete Cardiac Institute at the Muhimbili hospital saw 25,000 patients and performed 270 surgeries. That's not nearly enough.

Help is needed and the Israeli organization, Save a Child's Heart, is answering the call.

At the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel, doctors give their time to Save a Child's Heart (SACH).  Over the years they've saved the lives of more than 4,000 babies and children from Africa, South America, Asia and the Middle East.

And there's more…

Treatment Is Better at Home

Interventional cardiologist Dr. Sagi Assa is one of 35 doctors and other staff who brought their talent and care to Dar Es Salam for a week-long mission.

"For us, just bringing children to Israel, it's nice, it's important, but it's not as good as treating them here at home where they have their families around. Mothers can be supported by friends, by people," Assa told CBN News.

"For the healing process of the child, it is as important as the surgery itself to be in your environment, treated by your physicians, speaking your language -- you feel much better," Assa explained.

They performed 12 surgeries, 21 other procedures and screened 125 children for heart issues.

That number included 7-month-old Whitney. She needed surgery to separate the blood vessels to her heart. CBN News received a rare opportunity to document the surgery performed by the team of Israeli and Tanzanian doctors.

"If not treated at the first year of life that might be irreversible," Save a Child's Heart head surgeon Dr. Lior Sasson told CBN News in Tanzania. "And this patient will grow up and die miserably at the age of about 20 or so."

Whitney's mom, Lydia, said she knew her daughter's case was uncommon.

"I was very scared and then I asked, 'Have you ever (done) an operation like that to other kids apart from this?' They said, 'No, but at Israel we used to do it so they are going to be successful,'" Lydia told CBN News

"So I was really happy. I thank God. I heard the operation was successful," Lydia said.

"And that means that she will be able to live like a normal life expectancy, have children, be like a normal child, play with her sisters and brothers and friends and that's a great satisfaction to know," Sasson said.

Capacity Building

But the work of Save a Child's Heart doesn't stop there.

Professor Mohammed Janabi, director of Jakaya Kikwete Cardiac Institute, said other countries and groups send teams to operate, but only SACH imparts its knowledge.

"It's not the volume which counts here; it's that capacity building and that's what you see. The operations are complicated, but it's the locals who are doing (it), with the supervision from the Israeli team," Janabi told CBN News.

And Janabi knows it's an uphill task.

"These operations on our own, nobody could have tried to touch those kids. They're pretty complicated," Janabi said.

"It was very important because I have not done any case like this by myself so having him coming here and for the first time we did it together here," said Tanzanian Dr. Godwin Godfrey, who trained in Israel for five years.  

"His showing me again the moves was very important so that the next case I'll be able to do it by myself," he added.

Godfrey said the Israeli training helped prepare him for a busy schedule when he returned to Tanzania.    

"I'm the only one that specializes in the pediatric cardiac surgery department, but I have some help from other cardiac surgeons who specialize like in adults and vascular, so the Israelis give me a hand," Godfrey continued.

They helped him realize that with the proper treatment, children can survive.

"I came from a hospital before that you could see that 20 children died. In a very good day you see three or four children die," he said. "Now going to Israel you say for six months you haven't seen a child die. This was another lesson that I learned."

Sasson mentored Godfrey.

"I'm very proud because now he assisted me, but in many other cases he did by himself with Ayayo (another doctor now training in Israel). So to me it's a great pleasure to see them working together and saving lives," Sasson said.

Save a Child's Heart Executive Director Simon Fisher said there's been a dramatic improvement in the complexity of the cases that Godfrey can handle on his own.  

"What we're looking at is the fruits and the results of the long training program in Israel over a period of the past five years where Israeli doctors have been training their colleagues from Tanzania," Fisher told CBN News.

Missions like these, he said, bring the Tanzanian team closer to becoming independent.

"Until a year ago, Tanzanian children in need of heart surgery could not be treated in [their own] land.  The only opportunities were for surgery either in India or in Israel, which only covered a small percentage of the children suffering from the problem," Fisher said. "Tanzania is the jewel in our crown."

Image Is Everything

This partnership is also giving both Israel and Tanzania an opportunity to take on negative perceptions.  

"If you go out today and interview people [and ask] 'What do you know about Israel?' They say, oh they are the people shooting the Palestinians. They are the ones fighting with the Palestinians every day," Janabi said.

"That's the only thing people know outside. [You tell them] 'No, no, no they are the people in Muhimbili trying to do operations.' If you interview 10 people today, trust me, maybe one will believe your story," he added.

Godfrey compared it to the perception that people have of Africa.

'It's the same thing that if people come to Africa, they don't think that they will find cars, roads and everything," he explained. "They always think about people starving and living in the jungle and what."  

"So it's really about the image that is portrayed, but I also understand that it's the image that will sell in the media. So it's very hard to fight it off," Godfrey said.

Getting the Word Out

Randi Weiss recruits volunteers and spends a lot of time keeping the children happy.  She hopes the good work done here and other places will help get the word out not only about this organization but Israel as well.

"We see daily amazing things – miracles, incredible, incredible people working to save amazing children's lives and the most frustrating thing is that not enough people know," Weiss told CBN News.

"There's so much negativity associated with Israel, especially any kind of news that comes out of Israel and people tend to ignore these wonderful things," she said.

Missions like these can help tip the scales.

"These missions are [about] more than just the Kikweke Cardiac Institute. Trust me," Janabi said.

"I can guarantee you that their image of Israel changed after their child or their children received surgery," Weiss said.

Such was the case for one Muslim dad.

"I love Israel because they rescued my son's life," he told us.

And that says it all.

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