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Save a Child's Heart: The Vision of Dr. Ami Cohen

Updated: Sep 17, 2018

Op-Ed by Jessica Horst

Photography Provided by Sheila Shalhevet

Traveling through Israel with Hasbara Fellowships I was inspired by many humanitarian organizations truly dedicated their missions. As I toured different social awareness and wellness organizations, I noticed a common trait shared between these groups-- the preservation of their founder’s values. Making decisions with a “mission-first” mentality and maintaining transparent operations reporting propels these nonprofits forward, attracting passionate professionals and the public eye. They bring hope to the global community.

One organization in particular stood out to me, Save a Child’s Heart is an international humanitarian organization and recent recipient of the UN Population Award for treating children with heart disease regardless of race, religion, gender or financial status. Save a Child’s Heart was founded in 1995 at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel, committed to improving the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children in developing nations and creating centers of competence within these countries. To date, Save a Child's Heart has saved the lives of more than 4,800 children from 57 countries in Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, and throughout the Middle East. They have also trained more than 120 medical personnel from these regions.

The late founder of Save a Child’s Heart, Dr. Amram Cohen, was born and raised in Washington, D.C. and received his medical degree from the University of Virginia. In the 1980’s, Dr. Cohen trained in the U.S. Army at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and was motivated by his “day-after vision”—what would life be like when he would become a “real” cardiac surgeon. Visions of “seeing a heart pink up after a switch,” or to “present the perfect paper at the STS,” encouraged him during long, insufferable rotations. Just like the average medical graduate, Cohen had to dedicate himself to his training and gain experience to achieve his goals.

For many years, Cohen was committed to army medical service so only in his late twenties did he begin his surgical work. After many years of practice, he realized what the true goals became; to do cardiac surgery and “to look into a mother’s face and tell her that her ill baby was going to be fine.” “Over the years,” said Dr. Cohen, “diagnosis related groups,managed care, our aging patient population, job competition, angioplasty and the major fiscal and political restraints of modern day medicine whittled away at my visions.” While on a tour of duty in Korea in 1998, he found himself with the skills he so desperately desired, but realized he had lost the motivations that drove him to pursue those skills in the first place.

Fortunately, during his service in Korea, he was introduced to a courageous 70-year-old woman named Harriet Hodges, who spent her days helping indigent Korean children with heart problems. Hodges enlisted Dr. Cohen in her program, during which time he worked in clinics, sent pro-bono patients to the U.S. hospitals, and operated on 35 children with PDA’s, heart defects affecting blood flow, in Seoul. To this day, a $5 plaque, hangs in his family’s home as one of his most prized possessions gifted by the grateful families he saved.

Finding his passion rejuvenated after his time in Seoul, Dr. Ami Cohen knew exactly what he had to do. It was then, in 1995, that Save a Child’s Heart was founded at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel. Committed to mission to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children in developing nations and creating centers of competence around the world, SACH’s goal is to better the health and welfare of all children, regardless of a child's nationality, religion, color, gender, or financial situation.

True to the mission, Save a Child’s Heart has saved the lives of more than 4,800 children from 57 countries in Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, and throughout the Middle East and trained more than 120 medical personnel from these regions to date. The organization holds preoperative and follow-up cardiology clinics in Israel and abroad, offers a comprehensive training program within Israel for doctors and nurses from developing countries, and leads surgical and educational missions to partner countries.

“We have witnessed great moments in this project,” said Dr. Cohen. “We have trained cardiothoracic surgeons who are now back in Ethiopia and Nigeria. We have trained the first cardiologist on the Island of Zanzibar. We were partners in the initiation of cardiac surgery in Ethiopia and continuously treat children from the Palestinian Authority.” 50% of all children treated are from the West Bank, Gaza and surrounding Arab nations including Iraq, Iran and even Jordan. In fact, Save a Child’s Heart holds weekly clinics in Israel for Palestinian children suffering from heart diseases from the West Bank and Gaza. Twenty to thirty children arrive at Wolfson Medical Center, with their parents, to be examined by the Save a Child’s Heart physicians. The children are accompanied by doctors from Gaza, who come to work in the clinic with their Israeli partners.

Dr. Cohen also loved working with professional at SACH partner sites, such as Belay Abegaz at the Children's Heart Fund of Ethiopia, Sam Omokhodian of Save a Child's Heart Nigeria, Prof. Gui of Hebei Children's Hospital and Prof. Ciubotaru of the Republican Hospital in Moldova. “All of these dedicated professionals are laboring under what most of us would consider unbearable conditions, all motivated by their own 'day-after vision', the vision of one day having the capability to provide their patients with all the care they need,” smiled Dr. Cohen, “Being able to be a partner in accomplishing this goal is a real privilege.”

Even after his untimely death in a tragic accident while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Dr. Cohen continues to inspire people around the world. His legacy is carried now by professionals and passionate supporters who believe in a future with high ethical standards and equitable access to healthcare.

“I am convinced that for the vast majority of people who chose cardio-thoracic surgery as a profession, idealism was initially a strong factor. For those of you who are reading this and just starting out, hold fast to your ‘day after-vision’ because, if it fades, despite all the skills acquired, there will be something missing. For those who are searching, join us and together let us make the network to help children with heart disease globally big enough to be equal to the task,” Dr. Cohen posed to the world, “There is work for everybody. There are no dollars and cents in it, but it is worth a fortune.”

Currently, there are 30 children in Israel, recovering from or awaiting life saving heart surgery from Ethiopia, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Romania, the West Bank, Gaza, Myanmar, and Fiji. These children will be treated by the voluntary medical staff and surgeons. At the moment, SACH is training 10 doctors and nurses from Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Palestinian Authority at Wolfson.

Recently, the organization won the 2018 UN Population Award, marking it the first time an Israeli nonprofit has won the award. SACH earned the award in recognition of its "outstanding achievements in population and health".

Determined to expand their capabilities, Save a Child’s Heart is building a the new International Pediatric Cardiac Center and Sylvan Adams Children's Hospital at the Wolfson Medical Center that will house the Middle East’s first International Pediatric Cardiac Care Center. The Center will enable Save a Child’s Heart to treat more children and train more doctors from developing countries.

Unconcerned with the challenges and dedicated to a future where all children have access to the care they need and deserve, Save a Child’s Heart is a model humanitarian organization. Dr. Cohen’s life work transcends national boundaries, helping to build peace and understanding between Israel and the nations of the world. Influenced by the immortal words and dreams of Dr. Cohen everyday: “If we can, we should.”

Follow Save a Child’s Heart on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to stay up-to-date!

#SACH #SACHstories #HealthyHearts

Jessica Horst

Jess is from New Holland, Pennsylvania and a senior in the Kogod School of Business. Jess is the co-founder of Student Israelity and is responsible for website management and design. As a program's assistant at the Center for Israel Studies, she has particularly developed her interest in Israel’s agricultural and sustainability practices. Now a Hasbara Fellow, Jess recently returned from a three-month stay in Israel.

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