By Jessica Hanewinckel
When Dr. Amram Cohen made aliyah in 1992, he already knew he wanted to make his livelihood saving the lives of children from developing countries.
The cardiac surgeon had found his calling during deployment to Korea while in the U.S. Army in 1988. In Korea, he began performing surgeries on the hearts of indigent and orphaned children for the organization Save the Hearts, which motivated him to devote himself post-military to saving more children’s lives.
What resulted was Save a Child’s Heart, a charitable nonprofit founded in 1995 in cooperation with Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel, where Cohen signed on as deputy chief of cardiovascular surgery and head of pediatric surgery. Today, the all-volunteer medical staff of SACH has operated on the hearts of more than 2,600 children from 43 developing countries worldwide, bringing them to Holon and housing them there before, during and after their surgeries.
According to U.S. Executive Director David Litwack, SACH operates on children who have congenital heart disease (the most common birth defect worldwide but easily repairable during infancy in western countries) or rheumatic heart disease (damage to the heart valves caused by a streptococcal throat infection, something preventable with simple antibiotics in western countries). But pediatric cardiac surgery is just scratching the surface of SACH’s mission.
“It’s kind of fascinating to see the scope of the impact of SACH,” Litwack says, “because on a basic humanitarian level, we’re saving the lives of dying children from developing countries. As part of that, we’re also trying to improve the level of pediatric cardiac care in developing countries, and the only way to do that is by training doctors.”
An essential component of SACH’s work is bringing doctors, also from developing countries, to Holon to train them to perform the surgeries themselves when they return to their home countries. This way, Litwack says, these countries will eventually have centers of competency where their kids can stay closer to home and receive the same care. Besides, Litwack adds, Israel knows all too well what it’s like to be the little guy dependent on others for assistance.
“There was a point in the early days of Israel when Israel had to send children with congenital heart disease outside of the country for surgery,” he says.
On an entirely different level, SACH’s work serves to improve relations between Israel and other countries. Though SACH has improved (or in some cases, established) relations between Israel and such countries as China, Indonesia and Iraq, perhaps most notable is its bridge-building between Israelis and Palestinians.
“We knew intuitively and anecdotally that what we were doing was having an impact, but about two years ago there was an actual scientific survey that was done that demonstrated that the work we’re doing is actually improving and is actually [positively] changing Palestinian attitudes toward Israelis and vice versa.”
Litwack says the improved relations are a result of Palestinian doctors training under Israeli doctors and of families bonding over their common experiences with their sick children undergoing surgery in Israel. SACH even began the Heart of the Matter Project, which addresses the issue directly. Since its founding, SACH has operated on 1,200 Palestinian children — nearly half of all the children SACH treats in total.
“Frequently, SACH has been the only contact between Israel and [the P.A.] during times of hostility,” Litwack says. “During the last war in Gaza, the only contact that was taking place was between SACH and doctors in Gaza because we were still bringing kids from Gaza to Israel for medical treatment. We really do rise above the politics that exist in the Middle East.”
According to Litwack, SACH has been attracting the attention of teens and young adults in other countries, who both spread the word of SACH and thus showcase the best side of Israel. In one case, San Diegan Jake Kornfeld is planning his bar mitzvah project around raising money for SACH (the cost of bringing a child to Israel, housing him and operating costs $10,000). In fact, SACH’s International Photography Exhibition will be housed on the second floor of the Lawrence Family JCC outside of the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre in mid-Septemnber, showing some of the children who SACH has saved. In other instances, young adults who tour SACH’s facilities and learn about its work during their Birthright trip, then bring information about it back to their college campuses, combating anti-Israel propaganda. In fact, Litwack says, SACH’s work is so widely appealing that Muslim student groups have even co-sponsored the traveling photo exhibit.
“It’s just another example of the ripple effect of one tremendous mitzvah,” he says, adding that SACH received official NGO status from the United Nations in July and became an official charity of the World Bank a few months before that. “There’s really no way anyone can really take issue with the work SACH is doing. It really transcends [all political conflicts].”
To learn more, visit www.saveachildsheart.org or call the U.S. office at (301) 618-4588. For exact dates for the traveling photography exhibit coming to the JCC, call Marcia Tatz Wollner at the JCC at (858) 362-1174.