It is fitting that Zanzibar’s architectural icon is its doors. They are imposing and unique. Many even have spikes to ward off attack. The doors we passed casually were often closed, but if they were open, we were warmly invited inside.
Like the doors, the Zanzibaris we met were initially closed. Their pride served as armour, and we were awed by their presence. Once they got to know us, even a little bit, their doors flew open wide and we were shown remarkable hospitality and affection.
One mom who brought her child for evaluation was a medical resident at the hospital. She invited us to visit her at home, which we did. We chatted honestly about the challenges of caring for a sick child while building a career. She was warm and her adoration of her daughter clearly shows.
Interviewing patients and their families was fascinating. Questions that seemed simple to us were difficult for Zanzibaris to answer. Until explained why we were asking them personal questions, like how family life changed post-surgery, or what they thought of Israel and SACH, they either answered with one vague word, or just smiled. Once they understood we were evaluating their experience to ensure Save a Child’s Heart was doing the best job possible, in a style which Zanzibaris were comfortable, they opened up. Some moms admitted they had been scared to travel to Israel because of the threats they perceived until they were actually there. Some moms told us they had no idea what to imagine since they had never left Zanzibar. Many explained that the only thing they knew was that getting their child to Save a Child’s Heart in Israel for treatment was their only chance to live. Quietly, a few added that they feared their child would not survive to make it home.
The common threads in all answers were the appreciation parents felt for their children’s exceptional treatment, positivity about their time in Israel and the follow up care they still receive. Moms said they felt “free” in the SACH house, and for some, it was the first time in several years that they were not alienated due to their child’s illness.
The fabric of community we felt was as vibrant as the clothing patterns we saw everywhere. At the core, the Save a Child’s Heart team is a tightly woven family. The families from around the globe who lived together in the SACH house now see themselves as cousins. The Zanzibaris who see each other monthly at Dr. Omar Suleiman’s clinic form a club and support system. Many, who before travelling viewed Israel skeptically now praise it generously.
Once Save a Child’s Heart opens a door for a patient, it never closes it. SACH is rigorous in its commitment to follow-up, and that in itself is extremely reassuring for patients and their families. We met several young adults in their 20’s and a few in their 30’s who had surgery as children. Many are now parents themselves, something impossible if they had not received treatment in their youth!
We returned to Canada this weekend with friends we never imagined meeting and the knowledge Save a Child’s Heart holds the keys to open doors for families around the world. We are committed to do our part to ensure SACH can continue their work, and ask you to do the same.