Ahead of Israel Independence Day this week, on Wednesday, I wanted to share one of my favorite stories from State Of The Heart (Urim Publications 2020), a book I recently published in March this year.
It’s a story which I witnessed personally when I worked at Hadassah Hospital, one of Israel’s largest hospitals, in Jerusalem, in 2018 and for me sums up so much about what the State Of Israel and its citizens stand for. It’s a story of hope that crosses the divides in this region and one of so many other accounts that gives us another reason to lift our heads. It also shows what can happen when people work together.
In June 2018, a 14-month-old Syrian girl in need of life-saving heart surgery and her young Syrian guardian, arrived at the Israeli-Syrian border for treatment in Israel. The procedure was facilitated by Operation Good Neighbour, a humanitarian aid campaign launched by the Israeli army (IDF) in 2016 with the goal of supporting Syrian civilians, throughout the civil war. The baby was among twenty children referred to a pediatric heart clinic at the Baruch Padeh Medical Center of Poriya Hospital in Tiberias. The northern Israeli hospital partnered with experts in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital to treat the children.
Dr. Julius Golender, a senior pediatric cardiologist at Hadassah’s Ein Kerem campus, travelled to Tiberias and examined the patients. “We can help your daughter,” Dr. Golender told the woman as she lovingly held the 14-month old baby born with a ventricular septal defect (VSD), a hole in the wall separating the two lower chambers of the heart. In normal development, the wall between the chambers closes before the baby is born, so that at birth, oxygen-rich blood is kept from mixing with the oxygen-poor blood. Dr. Golender decided to refer the girl for immediate surgery to Hadassah Ein-Kerem hospital, in Jerusalem.
Upon arrival, the Syrian woman met with Sandra Kudsieh, an Arabic-speaking social worker at Hadassah Hospital and told her the whole story of how she secretly took the baby to Tiberias to be examined and then, at night, she rode with the IDF to Jerusalem. She confided to Kudsieh that she was not the mother of the child. “She put me in a difficult position,” said Kudsieh. “I had to tell the medical staff that this was an aunt, not a close enough relative to sign the surgery consent papers. But without the surgery, the baby would die.”
The baby was born to a Syrian couple who split up soon afterwards, partly because of the stress of dealing with such a sick baby. The mother abandoned the baby. The father moved in with his brother and family. His brother’s wife treated the baby as her own, even though she was five months pregnant with her fifth child. She took the baby to the doctor, bottle fed her, spent long nights keeping her alive. She had a plan. “Everyone here knows that the Israelis do the complicated surgeries we don’t have in Syria. I wanted to save this poor baby who saw me as her mom,” she said.
Hadassah pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Eldad Erez was ready to perform the operation, but it simply couldn’t be done without the parent’s permission. As a result, the IDF had the child’s father tracked down in Syria and brought to Israel for half an hour. Hadassah doctors spoke to him by Skype to explain the procedure with its risks and benefits. The father signed his consent and the surgery went forward. The next day, the young baby was sitting up and smiling. “I can already see a huge difference,” said her aunt. Then she was suddenly alert. “Dairah” she said, Arabic for “airplane.” Just a commercial plane, but she is used to sweeping her baby into their hiding places every time a plane flies overhead in Syria. Then she realized that she’s in Israel and safe.
Barbara Sofer, Israel Director of Public Relations and Communications for Hadassah contributed to this story.