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Saving a Child’s Heart

September 4, 2014 | by Rivka Ronda Robinson

Dr. Lior Sasson operates on children from Angola to Zanzibar who otherwise would not have the medical care they need.

It’s a dark, stormy morning at the Edith Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel. In the windowless bowels of the hospital, Dr. Lior Sasson remains oblivious to the weather as he and a colleague work painstakingly to save a child’s heart.

She is Rosalinda, a 4-year-old from Angola who weighs only 11 kilos, or 24 pounds. Diagnosed with “failure to thrive,” she has what the doctors call a Swiss cheese ventricular septal defect, or VSD, which means she has holes in the chest wall that separates the lower chambers of the heart. The tiny girl rallies most of her energy for breathing rather than eating.

Today’s open-heart surgery will change her life.

It’s all part of Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli-based international humanitarian program offering top-rate cardiac care for children from developing countries. Lior and his team believe every child – regardless of nationality, religion, sex or family financial situation – deserves the best medical treatment possible.

The lead surgeon for Save a Child’s Heart, Lior operates on children from Angola to Zanzibar who otherwise would not have the medical care they need.

Lior exudes calm even while holding a life in his hands. The Israeli doctor painstakingly makes minute incisions and stitches, while describing the steps in English for an observer and directing his medical team.

“I’m never calm.”

“I’m never calm,” he admits hours later. “Maybe it looks like this. But every operation has its own stress, its own tension. I think it’s healthy stress because it keeps you sharp. There are so many unknown variables in surgery, so I’m always worried about something. The thing is to trust yourself and your team and to make cardiac surgery routine, make it boring, so everyone knows what the next step is, the sequence of events.”

It all begins just after 8 a.m., as an anesthesiologist puts Rosalinda to sleep so she will feel nothing and have no memory of the operation. Her figure limp on the operating table, she is hooked up to a cardiopulmonary bypass machine, which will take over the function of the heart and lungs during surgery.

Then Lior and another heart surgeon open Rosalinda’s chest, splitting the sternum in half with an oscillating saw. We can see her heart beating through a hole in her brown skin. The doctors use solution to arrest her heart – flat-line it – so it will not beat while they are working inside of it.

Quietly, methodically, the doctors use scissors to open her heart – and are surprised to find more holes than expected. They patch and seal each one with a surgical cloth called a GORE-TEX graft. It’s just after 10:30 a.m., and appropriately, somewhere in the room Louis Armstrong is belting out “What a Wonderful World” over the music system.

Outside, sheets of rain pound the Tel Aviv area. Inside, the pediatric operating room remains a calm sea of green. Little Rosalinda lies still on sterile green sheets as the doctors and assistants tie off her stitches. They wean her from the cardiopulmonary bypass machine, allowing her heart to circulate blood and her lungs to breathe again. After making sure her organs function properly, they close her chest.

Lior leaves the operating room at 11:46 a.m., keeping his glasses on but removing the loops over them that magnify everything fourfold when he performs surgery. He heads down the hall for a quick lunch.

Giving Children the Gift of Life

We talk in the staff lounge about Rosalinda’s prognosis. “Now she will be like any other kid. She will have a normal life expectancy,” he says. “This is a real lifesaving operation. Otherwise, she would die at age 20.”

He humbly credits his team for helping to make such a difference in a child’s life possible, from the cardiologists who diagnose problems to the perfusionists who set up and operate the heart-lung machine that keeps patients alive while their heart is stilled for an operation.

Poor children like Rosalinda who were born with congenital heart defects come to Israel from all over the world to receive medical care not available to them otherwise. Donors to Save a Child’s Heart cover the expenses. Dr. Ami Cohen founded the program in 1995 on the belief that all children deserve the best medical treatment available.

Lior became lead surgeon of Save a Child’s Heart when Cohen, his mentor, died suddenly in 2001, a day after conquering the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. “He changed my life,” reflects Lior. “I was his first assistant. After I was introduced to this fascinating subspecialty of pediatric cardiac surgery, he sent me to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for another two years of training, and he was waiting for me to come back.”

In 2000, after completing the fellowship in pediatric cardiac surgery, Lior returned to his native Israel and to Wolfson Medical Center, where he had done his residency after studying medicine at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In addition to assisting Cohen in the pediatric cardiac unit at Wolfson, he became a lead surgeon in the adult cardiac unit. In 2007, Lior was named chief of the Cardiothoracic Department.

Wearing his hat as lead surgeon for Save a Child’s Heart, Lior travels around the world evaluating sick children, performing surgeries and following up on former patients. A few days after operating on Rosalinda, he packed his bags for China.

“We try to follow the aim of Ami Cohen’s heart,” Lior explains. “He was posted in Korea, and was asked by the locals to assist the natives with heart programs. He performed a few closed-heart surgeries over there. He had a passion for helping kids without economic abilities. His first aim was establishing competent centers and bringing local teams to Israel to practice their training.”

“I see it as seeds for peace, because I think every family who was treated here and went home, they know what we did for them."

Both the patients and the medical teams make up the international mosaic that is Save a Child’s Heart. Beginning his rounds at 7 a.m. before Rosalinda’s procedure, Lior passes in the hall a 14-year-old boy from Gaza who has had emergency surgery for a tracheal tumor. The doctor then checks patients in the intensive care unit, including a 2-month-old boy from Gaza with a heart lesion. The team from Save a Child’s Heart put in a shunt to help the baby breathe.

Gaza lacks the trained personnel, equipment and medical facilities required for such cardiac surgery, according to Lior. His teams have treated more than 3,400 children, half of them Palestinian. “I see it as seeds for peace, because I think every family who was treated here and went home, they know what we did for them. Their tribe knows and their village knows. I think somehow it will bring peace closer.”

He might say the same about Iraqi patients. They are diagnosed by an American cardiologist in Iraq and travel through Jordan to Israel for treatment. “We have already operated on 200 kids from Iraq. It’s like closing a circle,” he adds when I point out the irony that his parents emigrated from Iraq in 1949.

Lior, whose name means “my light” in Hebrew, was born in Israel in 1964. His mother said her baby was a light for her. She could see his future as a doctor early on.

His career path has brought some unusual twists. During the Lebanon War in 2006, the father of an Iraqi child Lior had operated on called to make sure the doctor was safe from rocket fire.

The gesture made an impression. As Lior, a former Israeli Navy captain, says, a great relationship evolved. Other parents have named children after him. Sometimes the mothers of children whose lives he helped save will keep in touch by sending photos throughout the years.

On screening missions to different countries, Lior sees for himself the former patients who have grown up, married, had children and even followed in his footsteps. One women in Ethiopia who had surgery in Israel as a teenager chose to become a doctor.

Beyond PoliticsA father of three, Lior counts his blessings. “I am in a special position of being able to make a difference. Sometimes, I work in the ICU and see kids and realize if we didn’t operate on them, they would have died. There is nothing compared to seeing the smile of a child who’s healthy, to see his mother, to see the life he’s giving to another – it’s beyond any words.”

Excerpted from Beyond Politics: Inspirational People of Israel by Ronda Robinson (Mazo Publishers, Jacksonville, FL, and Jerusalem, 2011), a collection of heartwarming stories about 18 Israelis making a great difference in the lives of others. Click here to order.

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