Heart-to-heart effort boosts Israel’s image

There are nearly 50 million people in the East African nation of Tanzania and only one pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon. That would be Dr. Godwin Godfrey, who owes his training to an Israel-based nonprofit, Save a Child’s Heart (SACH). 

The doctor was in the Los Angeles area in October, speaking about the international organization that trains doctors from across the globe to perform delicate, life-saving surgeries on children from developing countries with congenital heart problems. It’s also devoted to offering free open-heart surgery in Israel for children from developing nations.

Godfrey is a surgeon who learned about SACH from a German pediatrician at his hospital in Mwanza, Tanzania, according to an interview posted at saveachildsheart.org. As part of his five-year training process with the organization, he spent time studying pediatric cardiology, pediatric intensive care and cardiac anesthesiology at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel. 

David Litwack, SACH’s U.S. executive director, explained that the organization began in 1995, founded by the late Dr. Ami Cohen, an American who made aliyah. Its goal is to work on many levels, Litwack said: “saving lives around the world, training the doctors and building bridges of understanding [between various cultures and Israel].”

The organization’s West Coast arm came together serendipitously after Judy Shore and her husband, David, creator of the TV medical drama “House,” stumbled upon it while abroad.

“We were invited to Israel along with the cast of ‘House’ a few years ago, and we stopped at SACH,” said Judy Shore, now the organization’s West Coast chair. “David and I go to Israel very often, but we knew very little about SACH. Wow! We were so moved.”

On Oct. 6, the Shores opened up their Pacific Palisades home to host a meet-and-greet for about 25 people that raised awareness and donations. Without an official office in Los Angeles, Judy Shore and Jack Mayer, SACH Western regional director, both work out of their homes to help the operation.

“SACH has been active on the East Coast for a while, but we would like to have more of a presence here,” Judy Shore said. “It’s an amazing nonprofit. They have saved the lives of over 3,000 children from over 40 countries. Not only do they bring children to Israel for surgery, but they also train doctors from other countries to perform heart surgery [in their respective countries].”  

David Shore said: “There’s a lot of good charities out there who do a lot of good, but usually what they do is make a crappy situation slightly less crappy. This organization, for these kids, takes a crappy situation and makes it go away, gives them life.”

For the Shores, becoming actively involved with SACH came easily. Not so for some of the children it tries to assist.

 “[The organization] recently performed successful surgery on two children from Syria. This was no easy trip. They ended up traveling via Europe to Israel to avoid people in their country knowing that they were going to the Jewish state,” Judy Shore said. “A third child was supposed to come, but the parents decided not to make the trip. That child has died.”

Many of the children who receive operations are Palestinian, she said. 

“They also have to be careful about people within their community knowing that they are being treated in Israel,” Judy Shore said.

Nancy Pardo, a Calabasas mom, began volunteering for SACH more than a year ago and can relate to its mission of helping kids. She meets with Los Angeles-area rabbis to spread the word and enlist young volunteers. She has another goal, too — bettering Israel’s image in the world’s eyes by raising awareness of SACH. 

“It’s so important politically,” Pardo said. “Even the Israelis don’t even know. I have cousins in Holon in the hospitals that don’t even know about it. Anything we can do here will help.”

At Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, where Pardo’s two children attend classes, Godfrey spoke with middle-schoolers in October, and Pardo facilitated a Mitzvah Day event on Nov. 3 where kids constructed rainbow loom bracelets to send to SACH children in Israel. 

“It was unbelievable,” she said. “The kids were so interested [in Godfrey]!”

Looking ahead, SACH plans to open clinics in Ethiopia and Romania. 

“They are working with physicians in both countries,” Judy Shore said. “An Ethiopian doctor is training in Israel right now.”

Locally, there is talk of putting together a gala in 2014 after the High Holy Days, she said. 

Meanwhile, back in Tanzania, the need is great, and Godfrey’s journey has only begun, Judy Shore noted.

“He has his work cut out for him.”