Having recently returned to Israel from Africa, where she climbed 19, 345 feet to the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Emma Hacohen said she learned some powerful lessons.
One was what it means to feel wholly exhausted and lethargic.
“The climb took seven days,” said Hacohen, project coordinator for the Israel-based international humanitarian organization Save a Child’s Heart (SACH). “It was really, really hard. I knew it was going to be hard. But what we did was nothing compared with what these children [with life-threatening heart conditions] have to deal with on a daily basis.”
Hacohen was part of a team of 12 climbers — from Washington, Toronto, Israel, Ethiopia, and South Africa — who climbed to Africa’s highest peak in an effort to raise $1 million, which will save the lives of 100 African children in need of heart surgery. To date, they have raised over $500,000.
Each of the 12 Kilimanjaro climbers was obligated to raise $10,000 — the cost of one child’s surgery. The rest of the funds are being raised through donations by supporters of SACH.
“All of us made it to the top [of Kilimanjaro],” Hacohen said. “And we all got out of the experience what we wanted. We all reached $10,000. The physical summit became a little less important.”
Prior to the climb, which concluded on Aug. 16, the SACH medical team performed 13 pediatric heart surgeries in Mwanza, Tanzania, and examined 300 additional children. Those children needing heart surgery, but who did not receive it during the mission, will be flown to Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel with all expenses paid by SACH.
“After the climb, we ended up meeting with those who were on the medical mission,” said Hacohen. “It was a very cool feeling having the two teams come together. We have an amazing group of Israeli doctors. The donors got to meet the surgeons who put their money into action.”
SACH provides life-saving heart surgery and follow-up care for children from developing countries, including Africa, Iraq, the West Bank and Gaza. Since its inception in 1996, the SACH medical team has treated over 2,700 children from 42 countries, and has examined and evaluated more than 6,000 children.
SACH also trains doctors in these developing countries to perform heart surgeries so that they may treat children in their homelands without the children having to make the trip to Israel.
Almost half of the children treated by SACH are from the Palestinian Authority, living in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.
“Save a Child’s Heart does not discriminate,” said Hacohen. “Every child is a child. Every life is a life.”
The recent mission to Africa marked the 10-year anniversary of the death of SACH’s founder, Dr. Ami Cohen, who died on Kilimanjaro after reaching the summit. Cohen, an American who made aliya, began SACH in 1995 after seeing the number of children suffering from heart disease in Ethiopia who could not get treatment.
The work done by SACH has inspired people worldwide, including 23-year-old Susannah Zlotnikov, of Pittsburgh. Zlotnikov worked this summer as an intern volunteering at SACH, assisting children before and after surgery. She plans to return soon to the organization to work as a grant coordinator.
“Essentially, I would bring the children coloring books or balloons or music, anything that would make them smile,” Zlotnikov said. “They are all away from their families, and it is hard for them. They don’t speak the language. We need to keep their spirits up; it helps with the recovery.”
“I am really impressed by Save a Child’s Heart,” Zlotnikov continued. “There is a huge staff of doctors, nurses and therapists. About 70 people are donating their time for free. It’s a very kind thing they’re doing.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)