Human Interest

Premature Syrian baby saved by emergency surgery in Israel

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A premature baby born to Syrian refugees in Cyprus is alive today thanks to the life-saving surgery he received in Israel. The risky operation was made even more difficult because it required both the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Israeli Embassy in Cyprus to step in and get permits for the premature baby’s transportation as quickly as possible.

According to Israel Today, Johnny Yusef is one of a set of triplets who were born prematurely. Weighing just 3.3 pounds at birth, Johnny also had a life-threatening congenital heart defect that required emergency surgery. Unfortunately, the hospital in Cyprus where his Syrian mother had given birth couldn’t accommodate the surgery.

In an effort to save Johnny’s life, the Cypriot Health Ministry reached out to Professor Einat Birk at The Institute of Cardiology at Schneider Children’s Medical Center Petah Tikva in Israel. Prof. Birk recommended that Johnny be sent to her care right away.

“For over a decade, we’ve brought over babies from Cyprus who needed this sort of operation,” Prof. Birk said. “With a population of only 800,000 people, there’s no way Cyprus could have the required residency for congenital heart defects in babies. We’ve operated on dozens of babies, the latest one just last week. Johnny’s story is unique because he’s both very small and needed the operation right away.”

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Because Israel and Syria have no relations, logistics for Johnny’s transportation needed to be arranged on a political level, with officials arranging permits for the move. This took one week. Finally, Johnny was cleared to travel. His medical transport included his 21-year-old brother, and Professor Gil Klinger, director of the Schneider Children’s Medical Center’s neonatal unit.

“It took a week to get all the authorizations needed to fly not just him over, but also his 21-year-old brother, who is Kurdish-Syrian. The return flight also necessitated a special medical transport and the organization of the hospital in Cyprus for further recovery,” explained Olga Godin, an intensive care nurse at the hospital.

Johnny received surgery the day after his arrival in Israel. “The operation is done with the help of a heart-lung machine,” Prof. Birk explained. “We had to stop the heart and get an alternate blood flow mechanism in place. It is very delicate and precise work. The margin of error is zero.”

“Open heart surgery on a baby weighing just over one and a half kilograms is very challenging, not to mention that he’s one of three brothers and the parents were unable to come along. The fact that he’s a refugee is irrelevant to us, but did necessitate the assistance of the Foreign Ministry,” Prof. Birk said.

Thankfully, the surgery was successful, and after a month in the hospital, Johnny was able to return to his parents. “Johnny is likely to have a long and healthy life,” Prof. Birk said.

Godin further emphasized how lucky Johnny is to have been able to receive the surgery. “The team was excited and proud to have been able to take part in it, especially as it’s not a normal child. If he wasn’t born in Cyprus and his family would’ve been without funding, he wouldn’t be alive right now,” she said.

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