Sur­geon’s big heart


IN­STEAD of putting his feet up in re­tire­ment, sur­geon Alan Kerr flew into a war zone to op­er­ate on the tiny hearts of chil­dren.

Dr Kerr has trav­elled to the Mid­dle East more than 30 times since 2001 with in­ter­na­tional char­ity Pales­tine Chil­dren’s Re­lief Fund to per­form surgery on kids who would oth­er­wise die of con­gen­i­tal heart con­di­tions.

‘‘I was just about end­ing my time at Green­lane Hos­pi­tal, where I had worked full­time all my life, when I got a call from a Bri­tish sur­geon I knew who was go­ing with an Amer­i­can team to work in the West Bank and Gaza,’’ the Mt Eden res­i­dent says.

‘‘That’s when I re­cruited a cou­ple of my friends from New Zealand, an anaes­thetist and a cou­ple of in­ten­sive care nurses, and we were off at quite short no­tice.’’

That week-long trip saw Dr Kerr and his team based in the volatile area as the Septem­ber 11 at­tack on the World Trade Cen­ter in New York un­folded.

‘‘We were pro­tected by the Pales­tini­ans, they knew we were an aid team,’’ he says.

De­spite the ini­tial trial by fire Dr Kerr kept re­turn­ing to the area, tak­ing with him pretty much the same core of peo­ple.

Over the years the Kiwi team has saved the lives of more than 700 chil­dren.

Kiwi med­i­cal staff are un­paid but their travel and ac­com­mo­da­tion is cov­ered by the re­lief fund.

Be­fore the char­ity stepped in, only around 100 chil­dren with con­gen­i­tal heart con­di­tions were be­ing op­er­ated on each year be­cause of a lack of fund­ing from the Pales­tinian au­thor­i­ties.

‘‘The real need is more like 400 to 500 a year,’’ Dr Kerr says.

‘‘So with­out the treat­ment about half the kids with con­gen­i­tal heart de­fects were dy­ing by about one year of age.’’

Early on Dr Kerr and fund boss Stephen Sose­bee were con­vinced by the Pales­tinian Min­is­ter of Health to train lo­cal med­i­cal staff in pe­di­atric car­diac surgery.

‘‘I could see that their med­i­cal ser­vices were pretty abysmal and I was keen to do what I could to help,’’ he says.

‘‘So I went back for four months in 2003 and worked in Gaza City. And that was the worst time of the sec­ond in­tifada. There were con­stant he­li­copter at­tacks at night, tanks com­ing in, houses be­ing de­mol­ished and peo­ple be­ing tar­geted for as­sas­si­na­tion. It was pretty dif­fi­cult work­ing there.’’

Even­tu­ally it was de­cided

to move the pro­ject to a more ad­vanced hos­pi­tal in east Jerusalem where it was more peace­ful.

But it be­came pro­gres­sively more dif­fi­cult to get Pales­tinian chil­dren into Jerusalem and the hos­pi­tal had de­vel­oped to the point where it could run au­tonomously.

Now the Pales­tine fund fo­cuses its ef­forts in a run­down sec­tion in the south of Gaza Strip.

The Kiwi team works on a ros­ter with other med­i­cal teams from around the globe. Dr Kerr went to the new lo­ca­tion for the first time in June and is hop­ing to re­turn for a sec­ond time next year.

‘‘It is dif­fer­ent in Gaza now, be­cause the Is­raeli set­tle­ments are all out and peo­ple are more peace­ful and are less in­ter­ested in pol­i­tics. They are just sur­viv­ing.’’

The ex­pe­ri­ence has been re­ward­ing but Dr Kerr is un­sure how long he will keep op­er­at­ing for.

‘‘Im get­ting a bit too old for it but we are hop­ing to go back in April and I’m hop­ing to in­ter­est a young sur­geon to go and help do the op­er­at­ing.’’


Warm heart: Dr Alan Kerr has trav­elled to the Mid­dle East more than 30 times to op­er­ate on chil­dren with heart con­di­tions. Inset: The Kiwi med­i­cal team have saved the lives of more than 700 kids dur­ing the past decade.

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