TORONTO — Dr. Bernard Goldman and a delegation of about a dozen visitors to Israel went off the beaten track last month to visit three young cardiac patients and their families in the Palestinian town of Nablus.
SACH volunteer Fatma Sarsour holds a young patient on her lap.
Initially, guards at the checkpoint wouldn’t let the Jewish visitors in, Goldman recalled in an interview at the Toronto offices of Save a Child’s Heart, Canada (saveachildsheart.ca).
Goldman, a semi-retired cardiac surgeon, was in Israel for the organization’s first international board meeting, along with half a dozen other Torontonians.
Karen Diamond and Dr. Bernard Goldman flank a map and pictures showing the extent of Save a Child’s Heart work in helping children with congenital heart problems. [Frances Kraft photo]
But, said Goldman – who is chair of the board of SACH Canada and serves on SACH Israel’s medical advisory board – explanations from a Palestinian cardiologist smoothed the way.
Their first stops were at the homes of patients who had undergone life-saving heart surgery courtesy of the Israeli non-profit organization, which offers treatment to children from developing countries.
“We wondered if there would be any negative repercussions on the families [in Nablus,]” said Karen Diamond, president of SACH Canada, who also visited there. But, she added, “there was no indication anywhere that there was any negativity associated with our visit. The families were so gracious and appreciative.”
Diamond said the families knew that their visitors were Jewish, and “it was explained to them that we were part of a team that funds the SACH program.”
After visiting the families, the visitors insisted on “having a walkabout” in downtown Nablus, Goldman said, adding that they weren’t afraid. “We felt quite calm. It looked like east Jerusalem in the days when everything was OK.”
They took pictures of new buildings and local markets, with women in the background wearing headscarves – some with traditional dress, others clad in jeans.
Although one of their photos from the trip shows obviously political artwork in a home they visited – a mural of a woman in a keffiyah, with her hand forming the “V” for victory sign, embracing the old city of Jerusalem – Diamond said that it was “so evident” that the people they met there “just want to live their lives.”
But she also hopes that families who have been helped by SACH “will raise a generation of children who have positive feelings for Israelis” who have saved their lives.
In addition to helping children medically, “we talk about building bridges,” Goldman said.
SACH is based at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, where medical staff donate their time to the project. It’s also the site of a weekly clinic for children from the West Bank and Gaza. Children from Iraq are seen in Amman, Jordan.
Since its inception in 1996, SACH has saved the lives of more than 2,200 children from 36 different countries.
SACH Canada sends more than $250,000 annually to the organization, mostly to fund surgery, which costs about $10,000 per child. As well, some of the funding goes to educational missions in countries like China and Ethiopia, where doctors from the organization work with a local team.
While in Israel, board members also visited the SACH children’s house in Azur, near Holon, where visiting families stay as long as a month or more for pre- and post-operative care, and handed out plush toys donated by the Webkinz Foundation.
At the house, they saw children from Angola, Gaza, the West Bank, Ghana, Iraq, Kenya and Romania – 22 in all.
A new children’s home, on land donated by the municipality of Holon, will replace the existing one. It’s expected to be completed by mid-2011.
The visitors also met a fourth patient from Nablus, the 1,000th Palestinian child to receive life-saving treatment from SACH. Gaida Nofal, 12, had open heart surgery in July to correct a serious congenital heart condition, and is the subject of a new SACH video, “1,000 Palestinian Child.”