Save A Child’s Heart is Israel’s largest international humanitarian organization. SACH improves pediatric care in developing countries around the world by performing heart surgery on children in Israel and by doing medical missions to developing countries. SACH also trains medical personnel and doctors from developing countries to give them the capabilities to treat their own children in the future. In honor of National Heart Month, Mayim –who is a member of the board of SACH – interviewed David Litwack, executive director of SACH, about the organization and its work.

Mayim Bialik: How did Save a Child’s Heart start and what’s your role?

David Litwack: The organization was founded in 1995 by the late Dr. Amram Cohen, who was an army surgeon from the US stationed in Korea. While he was in Korea, the army asked him if he wanted to treat some indigent Korean children. He performed heart surgery on several Korean children and decided that’s what he wanted to devote his life to. Congenital heart disease is the most common birth defect in the world; approximately 1 out of every 100 children is born with a congenital heart defect. He ended up immigrating to Israel and found a hospital that was willing to let him use the hospital as a base in Israel for these surgeries. An Ethiopian cardiologist heard that he was doing this and found a couple of children that we diagnosed in Ethiopia with congenital heart condition. This cardiologist said to Dr. Cohen, “We don’t have any heart surgeons. Would you be willing to treat them?” Dr. Cohen said yes. He went to Ethiopia and he picked up these two children. He flew them to Israel, and he put them up in his apartment in Israel! He performed the surgery on them and they recovered in his apartment. And that’s how Save A Child’s Heart started.

If you fast forward from there to 20 years later, we have done more than 4100 children from 53 developing countries. I’ve been the Executive Director for Save A Child’s Heart for 10 years now.

MB: Wow! So there’s a lot in the news about Israel… I want to underscore the fact that this is a nonpolitical organization, correct?

DL: That is correct. It’s completely nonpolitical and we’ve been recognized for our work by the United Nations and we’re an official charity of the World Bank; we’re also one of the few medical programs that actually receive funding from the European Union. So we completely cross borders in what we do medically and also from an ideological standpoint. We treat children regardless of their nationality, religion, race and gender, or financial situation; we treat children from countries that are still technically at war with Israel or do not even have diplomatic relations with Israel.

MB: How does that work practically? What does it look like if a child is going to receive care from Save A Child’s Heart and they come from a country that does not acknowledge Israel’s existence?

DL: What happens in complicated political situations is sometimes we have to arrange for travel visas to intermediary countries so that they don’t fly directly to Israel so that their passports don’t indicate that they’ve been to Israel because they’d have to worry about repercussions from their government if it was found out that they went to Israel – even for this reason. We have to work frequently to keep the identity of the mother and their children receiving care anonymous because they literally fear for their lives when they get back to their home countries. They’re worried that they’re going to be murdered because they’ve gone to Israel for treatment. That’s the case for children that we take from Syria, for example. You’ll see if there is some kind of media story that’s done on the child, the faces of the child and the parent will be blurred out because they don’t want to do anything that’s going to jeopardize their lives when they go back to their home country. Sometimes we’ll work with intermediaries and other organizations that will basically cover, so to speak, what we’re doing.

MB: Obviously it costs money for you all to do what you do and I’m assuming you rely on donations and that kind of support. If people want to get involved, would you recommend they go to the website? Do you want to tell us a little bit about the fee structure for certain surgeries?

DL: Sure. If they want to make a donation, they can go to the website which is: saveachildsheart.org. In terms of the fee structure, the entire medical team volunteers their time for free for Save A Child’s Heart.

MB: Wow.

DL: As a result, the costs per child are $15,000 and that includes all of the surgery. It also includes – regardless of how many surgeries they have to have – an average of 3 months in our children’s home for the child and their mother and transportation as well. In the United States, it could easily cost you $150,000 to $300,000 for this kind of surgery. But because our medical team work as volunteers, the costs are minimal.

MB: Is there anything else you’d like us to share about the work of Save a Child’s Heart?

DL: What we’re doing really crosses all political boundaries. We believe that every child that we save is an ambassador for peace. When they return to their home country, they talk about what their experience was like in Israel and how they had preconceptions about Israel. They had stereotypes about Israel and Israelis that were all broken when they were in Israel. One of our slogans is: “Mending hearts, building bridges.” I think that sums it up perfectly because from a medical standpoint, we save lives. But we’re also building bridges of understanding between people around the world, which considering what’s going on in the world these days is almost as significant as saving lives.

MB: Absolutely. David, thank you so much for what you do and everything you’ve done for the organization. 

DL: I want to thank you for your support and help as well. It really means a lot to us.