Sav­ing the hearts of Syr­ian refugee ba­bies

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

SIDON, Le­banon: Nine-month-old Amena al-Helou’s skin siz­zles as the sur­geon cau­ter­izes 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, Amena is in some ways 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.

‘Huge Sums’

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-yearold Khalil re­ly­ing on sea­sonal farm work to scrape to­gether money for food. Ham­moud hospi­tal of­fers dis­counts to refugees, and the UN cov­ered 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”. — AFP

SIDON, Le­banon: Pae­di­atric heart sur­geon Is­sam Al-Rassi holds hand with nine-month-old Syr­ian refugee Amena Al-Helou prior to op­er­at­ing on her heart at the Ham­moud Univer­sal Hospi­tal in this south­ern Lebanese city on Sept 22, 2106. — AFP

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