Dr Yayehyirad (Yayu) Mekonnen Ejigu will become Ethiopia’s first fully-trained paediatric heart surgeon – and with the assistance of the Israeli organisation, Save a Child’s Heart, and Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, he is set to achieve his dream.
Rebecca Davis reports.
WHEN Dr Yayehyirad (Yayu) Mekonnen Ejigu was doing his rotation in paediatrics in Ethiopia, there was one child in particular whom he remembers vividly.
“She was coming back and forth into hospital. Very bright and beautiful, around 8 years old,” he recalls as we find a window to speak between his scheduled surgeries.
Yayu, 34, is slight, and quietly spoken in his blue scrubs as we chat in one of the common rooms for medical staff at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH). Doctors and nurses refill their water bottles and pass us by, leaving the hushed sounds of relieved post-surgical chatter hanging in the air.
“Her mum would take her out to the playground – but she would rarely play,” Yayu continues.
“You could see how much she wanted to though, but she just couldn’t. The second that she would start running, she would just get sweaty and tired.”
The young patient had a heart condition – and in Ethiopia such cases are often left untreated, simply “because the treatment isn’t available”, he tells.
“And that really kills you as a doctor – knowing that there is a treatment out there somewhere and you are not able to provide it … You see them suffering really, and they often end up dying painful deaths.”
That little girl would change Yayu’s life.
“I wanted to help those kids. Something should be done. You might say I wanted to take this upon myself.
“That’s when I knew I wanted to become a cardiac surgeon.”
Founded in Israel in 1995, Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) is an international non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the quality of paediatric cardiac care for all children in developing countries and also creating centres of competence in these countries.
Based at Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon, SACH holds pre-operative and follow-up cardiology clinics in Israel and abroad, while offering a comprehensive training program for doctors and nurses from developing countries, and leading surgical and teaching missions abroad.
Yayu was completing his medical studies in Jimma, the largest city in south-western Ethiopia, when he learnt that one of his professors was a previous trainee of SACH. The professor approached Yayu, hoping that he too would apply for the program at SACH and return to Ethiopia and join him with his new skillset – “an idea that was easy to fall in love with”, says Yayu.
“Although I guess for almost anyone who hears about the Middle-East you also think about what’s going to happen? Is there going to be a war? I had those doubts, and my family was worried that I was coming.
“But I was young and reckless, I think. It was a challenge, and I decided – I’m going to take it.”
As the aeroplane door opened at Ben Gurion airport, a thick wave of heat and humidity awaited Yayu.
It was Israel in mid-June, 2012.
“I didn’t know what to expect, and then the second day, I saw people at the beach, having fun. It was beautiful and very peaceful – as peaceful as it can get,” he says, before adding, “I wouldn’t say that lasted long though. That’s Israel for you!”
A few months later, war broke out. Yayu recalls the ever-beckoning sirens of Operation Pillar of Defence.
“Everyone around me wanted peace, and they never wanted to run,” he reflects.
“As disturbed as I was as a foreigner and a newcomer … everyone comes together to help each other. If you are walking on the road, people will say, ‘Come, there is cover here, a bunker’. So you are always welcome and invited if something happens while you are on the streets. It was nice.”
Yayu settled into the five-year training program in cardiac surgery at Wolfson, crediting SACH’s lead surgeon Dr Lior Sasson as an instrumental, “not just a mentor, but a father figure for all the professionals coming across”.
“Everyone went out of their way to be supportive, even inviting the trainees to their house for holidays so that we wouldn’t feel all alone,” he says.
While Yayu immersed himself into the training program, that was not all he learnt, as he attempted to master Hebrew by undertaking Ulpan (Hebrew language classes).
“I think by a year-and-a-half I was okay, and then by the time I finished, I think I was almost an Israeli!” he recalls with a laugh.
The language may have been new, but not everything was so unfamiliar to home. “There are so many Ethiopians in Israel. I couldn’t complain because I had Ethiopian food on every corner … and there are Ethiopians everywhere. And really, SACH is like an international community. You have doctors coming in from everywhere.”
And doctors going out to everywhere too.
Yayu joined several international missions, bringing cardiac care to sick children in Romania, Tanzania and most poignantly – Ethiopia.
“To be able to go back there, and do a mission in my own country for the first time, on one hand made me feel very proud of myself, and what I have achieved so far.
“At the same time though, there was a tremendous responsibility, and I wanted to prove that I was ready for this.”
In the week that Yayu was a part of the Ethiopian mission, he and the SACH team performed 12 open heart surgeries – “and all the kids did really well”.
“It gives you more motivation, and more inspiration to return [to Wolfson] because when you are doing those things in Africa or in Israel, you see how relieved the families are, and how grateful they are to be receiving this care,” says Yayu.
It is care that without SACH, the families simply would not have access to.
Yayu credits the value of teamwork and togetherness as crucial to the success of the program, and paediatric cardiac care.
“The Israeli team was very generous to take up the responsibility of teaching and training doctors from Africa and giving and coming back to work with us on missions is an amazing thing.”
To date, SACH has saved the lives of more than 4900 children from 57 countries in Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, and throughout the Middle East. Additionally, SACH has trained more than 120 medical team members from these countries.
But knowledge and practice were not all that Yayu gained from Israel.
Through one of his new Israeli friends, he was introduced to a Jewish girl from Melbourne. Cynthia Fayman had moved to Ethiopia for business and was volunteering at UNESCO when Yayu met her during a visit home. They kept in touch and then began a long-distance relationship. Eventually, Cynthia made aliyah to join Yayu in Israel, and in 2014 they got married – first in Melbourne, then
again in Ethiopia.
While Yayu was in Melbourne for the wedding he visited the RCH and met with the head of paediatric cardiology who heard his story, “and was really interested in training someone who was willing to go back to Africa, and will make a great contribution”.
Next month, Yayu will have completed his 17-month fellowship program at RCH.
“This is one of the best paediatric cardiac centres in the world with years and years of experience, in surgeries and heart transplants,” says Yayu.
He intends to take all of his knowledge and experience from Israel and Australia to Addis Ababa, “and then make it work in a way that works for Africa”. Yayu will set up Ethiopia’s first-ever centre of excellence in paediatric cardiac surgery.
“Yayu’s program is the second program in the world which is really following the SACH model of success in Tanzania,” shares SACH executive director Simon Fisher.
It will begin with engaging the Ethiopian government in investing in paediatric cardiology, and there is also a dedicated public hospital that awaits Yayu and his team – several of whom were also trained at SACH.
“Being at the RCH completes my training and I will be taking a lot from here,” says Yayu, adding that some of the greatest attributes upheld by the hospital are the “teamwork, dedication, care and consideration of patients, and their families”.
Jessica Stimson is a Jewish mum who knows all too well about receiving care from the RCH. Last year, it was discovered that her then four-year-old daughter, Sunshine, had a thickening of a muscle wall in her lower right ventricle, which meant she required open heart surgery.
Yayu was a member of the theatre team who performed the surgery, and also treated Sunshine in the week that she stayed on at the RCH in recovery.
“He had the right balance of sympathy and empathy, and modesty and respect for the child and the parents. He was an absolute pleasure to deal with, at a time that is not so pleasant,” explains Jessica.
Today, Sunshine is healed, healthy and just a normal five-year-old who started prep this month.
“That’s one of the most gratifying things,” says Yayu.
“To see a child being a normal child, it gives this happy feeling – I can’t even describe it. A child who was blue or who can’t walk, can’t play. And here they are after two weeks, running around. It is amazing.
“I think this is why we all do what we do.”