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Tuvia Book
Author, educator, Tour-Guide, artist

The Israeli Doctor and the Tanzanian Orphan

Dr Sagi Assa and Esther in Arusha, Tanzania.  Photo (c) T. Book, 2022
Dr Sagi Assa and Esther in Arusha, Tanzania. Photo (c) T. Book, 2022

It was sweltering October day in the “Little Africa” orphanage in Arusha, Tanzania and I was listening to a remarkable phone conversation that Dr Sagi Assa, now a senior member of the Wolfson Medical Center’s pediatric cardiology team and Head of Pediatric Interventional Cardiology, was having with a donor in the United States. The conversation would forever change the life of an orphan. Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) had given this same orphan, Esther, a new lease of life a few years earlier in Israel.

SACH, based in the Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon, believes in saving the world, one heart at a time, by offering free pediatric medical care to children from developing countries. According to the mission statement on its website SACH is,

An Israeli-based international humanitarian project, whose mission is to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children from developing countries who suffer from heart disease and to create centers of competence in these countries. SACH is totally dedicated to the idea that every child deserves the best medical treatment available, regardless of the child’s nationality, religion, color, gender or financial situation.

I was privileged to be on a SACH young leadership team mission, Including Dr Sagi, that had come to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise awareness, and funds for SACH to save the lives of children in developing countries by bringing them to Israel, at no cost to the families, for life saving heart surgery.  We pushed our collective physical and mental boundaries in order to be part of the effort to raise cognizance and appreciation outside Israel for all the good that Israel does for the world. I was honored to witness first-hand the ability of Israel to affect the world for good. The challenge of Tikkun Olam is our own responsibility for others and for our world. Our Jewish state knows how to rally around now and always. It does not matter where you are or what language you speak, we all grew up on a set of common values. The State of Israel is totally dedicated to the idea that every person deserves the best medical treatment available; regardless of his or her background.

Back in 2009 Esther, an eight-year-old Christian orphan from the Maasai tribe in Tanzania, became the twenty five hundredth patient of Save a Child’s Heart. (By 2022 SACH has helped to deliver more than a staggering 6,000 interventional and surgical cardiac procedures to children from 63 countries, including some of the most impoverished and politically challenging regions of the world).  Dr Lior Sasson, one of the cardiologists at Wolfson Medical Centre, described Esther’s condition.

Rheumatic fever had damaged her heart and as a result her heart was huge. She was very limited in even the simplest tasks. Even walking was difficult from her.

Sister Angelika Wohlenberg, the German born director of the “Little Africa” orphanage in Arusha, Tanzania, where Esther was living, heard about the SACH program from a volunteer who just happened to be riding the same bus as her from Kenya to Tanzania. Angelika contacted SACH and discovered that a team was actually heading to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro two days later. One of the medical crew was Dr Godwin Godfrey, who is Tanzanian, and was being trained in Israel for five years to return to his country as a pediatric cardiologist. They met Esther and saw she needed urgent life saving surgery. Two months later she was in Israel. The SACH team, including Dr Godwin Godfrey and Dr Sagi Assa operated for hours and reconstructed her damaged heart valve. Now she can live a normal life. A popular Swahili saying states, ‘Ni shauri ya Mungu’ (‘It is the will of God.’)

Six years later, the day before our assent we visited the “Little Africa” orphanage in Arusha. Dr Assa, one of the cardiologists who had operated on Esther, was among our SACH team who visited the orphanage and had a chance to reconnect with Esther six years after her successful surgery in Israel and do follow up.

Dr Sagi Assa and Esther in Arusha, Tanzania. Photo (c) T. Book, 2022

We spent many happy hours at the orphanage amongst special people whose poverty is not of the spirit. The children treated us to a lovely concert. In one of the songs, “Halleluyah,” sung in both Swahili and English, Esther was the smiling soloist. In conversation with Dr Assa Esther mentioned how she is motivated to pursue a career in medicine and specialize in pediatrics in order to help other children in need. Sister Angelika confirmed that Esther is an outstanding student, and thus Dr. Sagi’s phone conversation with SACH donors who have committed to funding Esther’s education. This is but one more example of how Israel, with all of its imperfections, sees as part of its purpose looking out for other people.

Tuvia with a group volunteering at the Children’s Home of SACH in Holon. Photo: (c) T.Book, 2022

Dr Sagi told me, “It is a mission to act on intensions that come from the heart and an honor to touch another’s heart.”  Many of my friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are deeply moved my stories of the SACH mission to Tanzania, and the selfless work of Dr. Sagi and the other physicians and team members of SACH, and also by the images of the Israeli field hospitals and search and rescue teams after any natural or military disaster zones in the world, including most recently in Ukraine, and ask why there is so little awareness and appreciation in the outside world for all the good that Israel does for the world.  Israel will continue to provide aid and assistance to all those who need help, because it is the right thing to do. It’s in our genes. Together, we will overcome the darkness, and rebuild for a brighter future.

Dr Sagi and Tuvia during a visit of the Write On for Israel mission to the Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon. Photo (c) T. Book, 2022
About the Author
Dr. Tuvia Book was born in London and raised in both the UK and South Africa. After making Aliya at the age of 17 and studying in Yeshiva he volunteered for the IDF, where he served in an elite combat unit. Upon his discharge he completed his BA at Bar-Ilan University, as well as certification in graphic design. He then served as the Information Officer at the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia, while earning a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Upon his return to Israel, Dr. Book graduated from a course of study with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and is a licensed tour guide. Tuvia has been working in the field of Jewish Education, both formal and informal, for many years. He has guided and taught Jewish students and educators from around the English-speaking world for some of Israel’s premier educational institutions and programs. Tuvia has been guiding groups for Birthright Israel since its inception and, in addition, has lectured throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tuvia served as a Shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the Director of Israel and Zionist Education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (Jewish Education Project). He was a lecturer/educational guide at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education (AMIIE) in Israel for a decade. Tuvia has lectured at both Bar Ilan University and Hebrew University. He was a Senior Editor and Teaching Fellow at the Tikvah Fund. He is a research associate at the Hudson Institute. Tuvia is the author and illustrator the internationally acclaimed Israel education curriculum; "For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Studies" (Fifth edition, Koren 2017), and "Moral Dilemmas of the Modern Israeli Soldier" (Rama, 2011) and has a doctorate in Israel Education. His latest book, "Jewish Journeys, The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt – 536 BCE-136 CE," was published by Koren this year. To order: https://korenpub.com/products/jewish-journeys
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