August-September 2017 | Features

The heart of the matter

The heart of the matter

Congenital Heart Disease is one of the most common types of birth defect, affecting up to nine in every 1,000 babies born in the UK. Meet one Rotary member who is helping children around the world to battle this deadly disease.


Martin Bell: Back on the frontline

August-September 2017

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For any parent, being told your child has a life-threatening condition which is likely to be terminal is devastating. Fortunately in the UK, access to the support of medical professionals in this situation is usually fast and relatively local in most cases.

However, it is a very different story for parents and children in many countries across the world.

Take, for example, Congenital Heart Disease (CHD) which impacts one in every 1,000 youngsters in countries as diverse as Sri Lanka, Palestine and Morocco.

At the forefront of the battle against CHD is an international charity called Save a Child’s Heart (SACH).

Supported in Great Britain, the United States, Canada and Holland, it was set up by Dr Ami Cohen who moved to Israel in 1992 where highly complex surgical procedures are performed at the Wolfson Medical Center on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

The charity works in co-operation with the Center so that once a child has been diagnosed with the disease, they are taken there for life-changing surgery – completely free of charge, with a parent or carer travelling too.

Visiting the Wolfson Medical Center is an amazing experience – you have to tell people about it.”

Rotarian Walter Felman had, until recently, headed up the charity’s UK wing where he is joined by a team of determined group of specialists, volunteers and fundraisers.

A long-standing member of the Rotary Club of Mill Hill, and a Rotarian for over 35 years, Walter described the charity’s mission as attacking CHD “in the same way that Rotary is working to combat polio, small pox and measles”.

Walter explained: “Children with CHD usually die in or before their teenage years. The disease causes continual and increasing damage over time, and this makes surgery often very difficult. This one disease can result in several procedures needing to be done to achieve a positive result.”

What is particularly important is not just treating the children, but also setting up clinics in their home countries to train surgeons, nursing staff and hospital professionals who can then provide vital treatments on a more local basis.

In some cases, these clinics are directly established by Save a Child’s Heart which can literally make the difference between life and death for a child diagnosed with CHD.

So why is CHD so prevalent today? Sadly, this is a combination of genetic inheritance, plus poor nourishment. Over the growing years of a child’s life, the impact of the disease will gradually become severe, so surgical intervention is critical.

Sometimes described as ‘the quiet killer’, CHD is experienced by children in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, African countries, and across the globe.

Over the growing years of a child’s life, the impact of Congenital Heart Disease will gradually become severe, so surgical intervention is critical.”

SACH records reveal that over 4,000 children from 51 different countries have received surgery in Tel Aviv. Approximately half of all children are from neighbouring countries of Israel, including the Palestine Authority, Iraq, Syria and Jordan.

They will have been referred to Israel by the child’s local hospital after their parents have discovered the facility on the internet.

Interestingly, youngsters on gap years, who are not necessarily looking at a future in medicine or surgery, are volunteering at SACH children’s homes and, in their words, the experience can be life-changing for them, too.

Of course, such a truly international mission requires funding and Walter is often asked to be a guest speaker at Rotary clubs, describing how SACH not only provides individual children with a lifeline against CHD, but also ensures the skills needed to treat it surgically and post-operatively are developed through training missions.

Funds raised by SACH charities in several countries provide for the transportation and care of the young patients, as well as some of the essential equipment.

During his many years as chairman of SACH, Walter has made repeated visits to Tel Aviv where the standard of care and success still impresses him.

“It’s almost impossible to describe unless you go there,” reflected Walter, who received a prestigious ‘Point of Light Award’ from the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, for his work with the charity.

“It is such an amazing experience and all so wonderful. It’s unassuming, modest; but you get a sense of the enormous difference it makes.”

The aim is to combat CHD by providing developing countries with the skills and equipment needed to treat children in their own communities.”

“SACH aims to combat CHD by providing developing countries with the skills and equipment needed to treat the children of their own communities and be independent of outside charity.”

“Tanzania is the latest success story, and SACH is still undertaking missions out there to train surgeons so the children there can be treated locally, or in Israel.”

The work of SACH continues to grow apace, with new commitments in China. Walter has recently stepped down as Chairman, handing the baton to Olly Honigman, but he will remain as SACH’s Honorary President.

“When you are involved with something like SACH it almost takes over your life. You feel you have to tell people about it,” added Walter.

For more information, visit the Save a Child’s Heart website.

Rotary Magazine