Coming as a fourth year Medical School student from George Washington University School of Medicine to do a medical rotation with Save A Childs Heart (SACH) has been life changing. From a medical perspective, it was absolutely fascinating. I was involved in surgeries and the care of patients with rare conditions you often only read about when studying for medical boards. Everything from TOF repair, TGA arterial switches, TAPVR, Truncus Arteriosus, Double Outlet Right Ventricle, ASDs, VSDs, CHARGE syndrome, and even dextrocardia.
But on a more personal level it was a deeply impactful time in my life. From the moment I walked through the doors of the Save A Child’s Heart Children’s Legacy Home I found myself surrounded by smiles and embraced in hugs and, despite just meeting me, being told in broken English “You are my friend.” It wasn’t long before the kids were pulling me in every direction to show me the amazing activities and art projects they had done over the course of the day. They offered me delicious cakes and candies from their home countries, took my stethoscope and listened to each other’s hearts and compared it against their own unique beat and we played card games or soccer. We sat around the TV to watch “Frozen” and sing-a-long to “Let it Go” (which I soon learned would become a nightly ritual). Finally, I helped to give them each their medicine before “kulala time” which means sleep in Swahili. The warmth of Save A Childs Heart Home is just that all-encompassing, it allows you from the start understand what a special place this is.
Over the course of the next two weeks, children from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Gambia, Romania, India, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, Zanzibar, Israel and Gaza came and went through the Children’s Home, pediatric ward or ICU. I was fortunate to spend a great deal of time with them both in the home and in a medical setting. Every interaction I had at SACH, whether it be with the kids, the doctors, the nurses or the staff felt transformative. I have never met a group of doctors and nurses so selflessly devoted to the their patient’s well-being. The medical staff do this not only directly by offering a high standard of care to the SACH children, but also indirectly in the way they approached teaching medical students like myself and fellow residents. Part of SACH’s mission is to train doctors from countries that lack the means to provide life-saving cardiac care so that they can return to their homelands and exponentially increase the reach SACH is able to have.
When you walk into the pediatric ICU each morning, you hear a sea of languages from Swahili to Arabic to Hebrew and English being spoken by the diverse team of doctors and nurses being trained through SACH. If you were to ever see the embodiment of global health, this was it. Even in the operating room, when tensions are often high and great care must be taken on such small, fragile hearts, the SACH doctors were always teaching so that they could be sure to share their expertise with the residents and myself in the hopes we would utilize this knowledge in our own practices. These acts of selflessness on a daily basis is what forms the foundation that SACH is built upon.
After the day’s surgery, I would spend the rest of the day either on the wards or at the outpatient cardiology clinic. Once a week we held a clinic where Palestinian children came from Gaza or the West Bank to be seen by the Israeli cardiologists at SACH. With them came a cardiologist from Gaza who simply did not have the tools to perform many of the treatments or diagnostic studies at the hospital in Gaza. I ate lunch with him every Tuesday and we talked politics, medicine and religion. We found more common ground than I would have ever thought possible, and we certainly shared the same vision towards a goal of unfettered access to care for these children.
Towards the end of my first week at SACH, I started arriving a bit earlier so that I could spend extra time with several patients that I had become particularly close with. One patient who had a particularly strong impact on me was Ebinuf. Ebinuf was born in Ethiopia with Tetralogy of Fallot (which you may have heard about recently in Jimmy Kimmel’s moving monologue about his son). On the flight to Israel from Ethiopia he collapsed and required resuscitation. He was immediately rushed to surgery as soon as they landed and was in the ICU for my first week at SACH. He quickly became one of my favorite patients to spend time with each morning and during down time. Any time he saw me passing in the hallway he would stand up in his crib and wave his hands until I came over to play with him and listen to his heart while he listened to mine with his toy stethoscope.
Ebinuf recovered relatively quickly and got to come home to the Children’s Home during my second week there. When I would get back from work in the evening he would always get really excited and point at me from across the room and say “bocto!” (Which is what he calls me…). Even when I was exhausted from being on my feet for a days worth of surgeries, seeing him scooch across the floor to sit in my lap and play made my day.
Through my rotation with SACH, the children and medical team became like a family to me. I feel so privileged to have learned each of their unique stories and will forever carry those stories with me as I continue my medical career. In being allowed to be a part of their journey towards a healed heart, it has truly warmed my own. When I packed up my bags to leave, there were a lot of tears and promises to try and see each other again sometime soon. As I opened the gate to the Legacy Home, I realized how those words first said to me two weeks ago ended up ringing so true. “You are my friend” I said to each child as I got into the taxi, forever changed by this experience.