Doctor saves hearts of refugee babies
Nine-month-old Amena al-Helou’s skin sizzles as the surgeon cauterises an incision in her chest, beginning a heart operation at a south Lebanon hospital to save the Syrian refugee’s life.
She is just one of dozens of refugees treated each year by Lebanon’s leading paediatric heart surgeon Issam al-Rassi, who each week sets aside a day to operate on Syrian and Palestinian refugees.
But for all his efforts, including on occasion waiving his fee, Rassi’s work runs up against the reality that many refugees simply cannot afford the life-saving treatment Amena is receiving.
“I have lost babies while the father was looking for help for money,” he says in his office at the Hammoud hospital in Sidon.
“I have a baby who should have been operated on at six months being operated on at nine months because the father needed three months to get the money.”
So, despite being born without a right ventricle, Amenais insomeways lucky, because her parents have been able to scrape together loans to pay for her treatment.
She is barely visible as Rassi, 50, and his team perform the procedure, her tiny figure dwarfed by the operating table and cloaked in green sheets.
The skin on her torso is painted brown with antiseptic and wrinkles like old leather as it is pulled apart to reveal her rib cage, which Rassi snips open.
He works to reroute the blood flow from Amena’s head directly to her lungs, ensuring it is oxygenated despite the missing ventricle.
The room is quiet except for the occasional request for a tool and the beeping of a machine monitoring Amena’s vital signs.
As he completes the procedure, Rassi observes her blood oxygen saturation rate rise to 98 percent. “It’s working,” he says. Outside the operating room, Amena’s parents Khalil and Amira al-Helou are waiting anxiously to hear the fate of the youngest of their six children.
They have been refugees in Lebanon since they fled their home in war-torn Syria’s northeast in 2013, with 39-year-old Khalil relying on seasonal farm work to scrape together money for food.
Hammoud hospital offers discounts to refugees, and theUNcovered 75 percent of her operation — but the remainder was still nearly $2,000, far beyond the Helous’ means.
“I gathered the money from different people, my brother, my cousin, other relatives,” Khalil said.
“What’s hard is not now, but paying it all back later. I don’t know how we’ll do it.”
Khalil said he approached several charities in Lebanon for help but was told they “don’t help Syrians”.
More than 1 million Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon since the war began inMarch 2011, testing the already-limited resources of the tiny nation and the patience of its four million citizens.