Doc­tor saves hearts of refugee ba­bies

China Daily (USA) - - WORLD - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE in Si­don, Le­banon

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.

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