Preface: Save A Child’s Heart is an organization dedicated to the hearts of children from countries without access to the life-saving medical care they require. They confront this issue by: traveling to countries and providing on site care; flying children and their families to Israel for care; and training physicians from countries where there is not access to the necessary care. It is noteworthy to state that care and travel is provided at no cost to the patients.
I stood bedside in the intensive care unit as the surgeon removed a thin piece of medical grade adhesive (it was fancy tape) covering the day-old sternotomy incision from the tiny chest of an eleven-month-old girl, exposing a vigorously pumping, massive appearing ball of ruby-red muscle. This was the first live, beating heart I had seen, and in the chest of an emaciated child from Tanzania, who could easily be mistaken for a premature neonate. As I became aware of the ever-racing beat of my own heart, my eyes began to water and I was, selfishly, temporarily mystified in the fragility of my own mortality. The surgeon began to sew the sternotomy wires that would be forever present in her chest. With great care, he moved onto the thin overlying fascia and skin, emphatically stating, “Need to line it up just right. One day this girl will want to walk the beaches of Tel-Aviv in a bikini!” Comedy aside, giving this beautiful life hope, gave a world hope.
Medical school desensitizes you to so much of the human experience. Bodily fluids, disfiguring traumas, heartbreaking stories of addiction, unlucky oncological cases or congenital diseases-become all too familiar. On one hand, it may protect you from occasionally losing your lunch or taxing emotional investment. But it can also breed a sense of jadedness. I’d fallen into this trap, making my experience with Save Child’s Heart particularly impactful.
Upon my arrival to the SACH Legacy home, there was a palpable familial energy abuzz, one that was present at any given moment within the home. This home is truly its own diverse world with patients, volunteers, doctors in training, and staff from nearly a dozen countries at any time. Daily tasks are divided and meals are jointly prepared to make life in a house with >20 children as harmonious as possible. And the kids were all too eager to
play games or transmit their infectious laughter. You would never know so many of them are so ill.
On the surface, the pediatric ICU at Wolfson Medical Center appears identical to any medical facility- the same beds, the same sanitizer aroma, and the same rhythmic beeping of machines functioning to keep patients alive. But in this six-bed open ICU, there is a small child from Kenya who was operated on by an Ethiopian surgeon-in-training, cared for by an Israeli nurse, managed by a Tanzanian physician-in-training, and an Israeli attending physician. There are half a dozen languages being spoke, from Hebrew to English to Swahili to Arabic, necessitating translators and endless cultural competency. There are few places in medicine, let alone the world, that exist such a cultural submersion and in an environment literally dedicated to the hearts of children.
It is easy to see the impact Save A Child’s Heart has had and continues to have on the global scale. But there is an additional aspect that is particularly unique, one working to help those much closer to home. The long standing Palestinian Cardiology clinic serves a stark contrast to the highly politicized, often fanatical, Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By many perceptions, a group of Israelis whose goal is to save the lives of Palestinian children should not exist. I vividly recall a twelve-year-old Palestinian boy and his father arriving at the clinic for a follow up visit, only to embrace each staff member and inquire about the health of family members alike. These people were friends! All of them truly happy to see one another and glad to know the other was doing well. This case was not an anomaly, but defined the culture of the clinic at large. Children seem to have a funny way of allowing us to bridge the gap, to find common ground, and transcend conflict.
Entering any medical facility as a medical student can be, at times, awkward. You do not quite have the ability or the responsibility to care for a patient on your own, and yet you have accumulated enough knowledge to be engaged in what is going on. This can sometimes make it difficult to feel fully involved in the treatment process, but the staff of the Wolfson Medical Center and SACH consistently went out of their way to make me feel included. Questions were always encouraged, and countless teaching opportunities did not go to waste.
It is unusual to make the bounding leap from traditional medicine, where you care for your patients at the hospital or clinic and escape them at the end of the day, to cohabitating and sharing life with them. The repetitive mantra and golden rule to treat all patients, “as if they are family,” takes on a whole other meaning when your patients become your family and vis versa. This was a welcomed refresher that I truly needed. Reflecting on my short and busy medical career, I’ve found myself treating a patient as a disease, as opposed to a person with a unique life story. No matter where or what I end up doing, I will forever carry with me this experience as a constant reminder of what it means to treat patients like family.