Yahya is a one and a half year-old boy from Afghanistan, born with a rare congenital heart defect (0.2/1000 live births) called “Transposition of the Great Arteries” (TGA), along with pulmonary stenosis and two septal defects. His condition was a dangerous one, and his prognosis in Afghanistan was poor – without surgery, he would die. His father had already taken him to doctors in both India and Pakistan, who had told him that his heart was too complex to operate on. A series of networks between Afghanistan, the US, the UK, and Israel connected Yahya’s family with SACH. Yahya flew to Turkey, where – without the knowledge of the Afghan authorities, and with Israeli border security coordination – Yahya and his father met an American volunteer and flew to Israel. To the best of my knowledge, Yahya is the first Afghan child to receive medical treatment in Israel.
Coming to Israel was not only overwhelming and difficult for Yahya’s father, but also boring. He was the only father amongst the SACH mothers, and he shared no common language with anyone in the house (he speaks Pashto and Hindi). As news spread throughout the country of an Afghan boy and his father staying in Holon, Afghan- and Indian-Israelis came to visit, entertain, and accompany them at the SACH house and Wolfson Hospital. The support that they received was heartwarming. As medical interns, we were present for Yahya’s surgery and the beginning of his recovery. He and his father received support from strangers along the entire journey. Last I heard, Yahya is recovering well and will soon be returning home to meet his new baby sister, born days before his surgery.
I share Yahya’s journey not because it is exceptional, but because it is typical of the warmth, community, and perseverance at SACH. In my experience, SACH is characterized by incredibly loving and idealistic people coming together and doing what seems impossible for the sake of saving lives and creating a better future for all children, regardless of their national backgrounds. Every member of the SACH team – the volunteers, staff, doctors, children, parents, and even strangers – worked to do everything in their power to create a loving global community. Thanks to all these people, SACH is one of the best examples I know of Jewish values in action such as Tikkun Olam (healing the world) and Tzelem Elokim (the recognition that every person is created equal in the image of God).
As a medical student, it is often difficult to see past the patient and recognize the humanity of the person being treated. One of the greatest gifts of the SACH medical internship was to live at the SACH House and spend time with the children. In addition to Yahya, I met Sadam – an 11 year-old Ethiopian boy who has had three mitral valve surgeries during his two stays in Israel. I spent time with Nila, a Tanzanian baby with Down Syndrome being treated for congenital heart defects. And I played with Muhammad, an energetic three year-old from Gambia who came to Israel with his aunt for his surgery. I hope that in the future, these children (in addition to all the others) will remind me that there is more to my patients than their illnesses.
Standing in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit one day, I noted the nationalities of the five children who were present: Ethiopian, Afghan, Tanzanian, Palestinian, and Israeli. Each patient received the same high-quality care and could expect similar outcomes. SACH and the team at Wolfson Hospital are shining examples of how medicine can be a tool to build bridges between cultures and people, making the world a more connected, empathetic, and healthy place.