Valentin was just over a year old when I first met him in a children’s hospital in Bucharest, where I was volunteering during a temporary stay in Romania. He was such an active, mischievous little boy that at first glance, one didn't notice the bluish tinge to his hands and feet, the result of a congenital heart defect. It was the heart defect that caused him to spend his young life in the hospital rather than with his parents, whose very poor living conditions didn't allow them to keep a sick child at home.
When it became apparent that the local medical system wasn’t equipped to handle a case like Valentin’s, the urgent question became, how do we save this little boy's life? It was then that we discovered the Save a Child’s Heart organization. When we contacted SACH to inquire how Valentin could get accepted into the program, their answer was:
"The only criterion for acceptance is whether or not we can help him."
The staff in Romania immediately got to work collecting Valentin's echocardiograms and medical records, and emailing them to the project in Israel. Three weeks later, I received a welcome phone call from Dawn, the project coordinator: "Valentin's been accepted into the program!" I phoned my Romanian colleague Vali to tell her the good news, and we celebrated together over the phone.
The date for the arrival of Valentin and his mother was set, but now we had to figure out how to get them to Israel. The SACH program funds every detail of the treatment in Israel: Hospital tests, the surgery itself, the post-op recovery, and room and board for the children and their mothers. But the flights need to be funded separately. Since Valentin's family couldn't afford the plane tickets, we turned to the Romanian office of El Al for help. To our immense gratitude, El Al agreed to donate roundtrip flight tickets for Valentin, his mother Alexandra, and Vali, who would help them get acclimated before returning to Romania.
Immediately upon their arrival, Alexandra and Valentin were driven to the villa that would be their home for the next two months. And what an amazing place it is! A large house full of mothers and children from all over the world – Ethiopia, Tanzania, Angola, El Salvador, Kenya and Romania – and that's just during the time we were there.
The day after their arrival, Valentin was tested in the hospital, and found to have a heart malformation that affects about 1% of children. 25% of children with this malformation need surgery, and the severity of his case made him one of them. In addition to the heart defect itself, the doctors found that his veins were extremely narrow, which disrupted his blood flow (and explained the bluish tinge to his hands and feet). The doctors informed us that as a first step, they would insert a shunt into his veins to widen them, so that blood could begin flowing towards the lungs. He would then come back to SACH at a later date for a permanent solution.
After about a two-week wait (more urgent cases are taken sooner), he and his mother were called to Wolfson Hospital in Holon where the surgeries take place. Thankfully, the operation went smoothly, and within a few days he was released from the Intensive Care Unit and placed in a pediatric surgery ward. I went to visit him in the ICU, and saw the professional and loving care he was given by at least four nurses and three doctors who were on duty while I was there. The foreign children were given the same attention as the Israelis, and everyone was treated in a clean, modern, high-tech unit run efficiently and professionally.
Ten days after he was admitted, Valentin was released back to the villa. The next step would be to run an echocardiogram on his heart once a week for several weeks. Finally, nearly two months after they arrived, Valentin and Alexandra returned to Romania, where they were re-united with their husband/father and sister. After a year and a half, Valentin returned to Israel for his second surgery – again with the help of El Al. Catheterization following that surgery showed that his pulmonary function was good, and his prognosis became that of a normal child.
One of our greatest joys is to see children re-united with their families. The months that Valentin spent with his mother in Israel were an incredible bonding experience for them both, so thanks to SACH, El Al and the Romanian organization Fundatia Inocenti, Valentin has gained both a healthy future and a loving family.