US heart surgeon treats children lacking care in Libya’s war

Mstyslav Chernov & Felipe Dana

TRIPOLI, LIBYA (AP) — Yazan, a one-year-old Libyan boy, was born with congenital heart disease. With just one chamber, the organ pumped so little blood that when Yazan cried, his skin turned black. Without surgery, he would not survive.

But Yazan’s country, Libya, has only one heart surgeon who can’t possibly perform surgeries on 1,200 or so infants born every year with heart defects. Of those, typically some 150 are in dire need of surgery and die in their first year, said American Peadiatric Cardiac Surgeon William Novick.

His international team of experts, part of the Novick Cardiac Alliance, regularly flies into Libya to perform surgery on patients like Yazan.

“To me this is simply an unacceptable situation that needs our attention,” said Novick, who lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

The medical trips help prop up Libya’s fragile healthcare system, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has described as overburdened, inefficient and short of medicine and equipment.

Yazan sits with his mother before his heart surgery at the Tajoura National Heart Centre in Tripoli, Libya. PHOTO: AP

Libya has been plunged into chaos since 2011, when a civil war toppled Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. Eastern-based opposition forces attacked Tripoli last spring to wrest it from control of the weak United Nations (UN)-backed government. The fierce round of fighting has killed hundreds of civilians, including at least 13 children since mid-January.

Novick’s team was the best, and perhaps last, hope for Yazan. But that meant his family had to travel to the most dangerous place in the war-ravaged country — the capital Tripoli, where the Tajoura National Heart Centre is located. Yazan’s odyssey from his small desert hometown barely skirted the war’s front lines. With key highways blocked because of fighting, his family took a 1,500-kilometre detour.

“You can’t come to Tripoli like before,” said Yazan’s father, Im Saleh Mohamed Abudulfetah.

On February 26, Yazan’s perilous trek culminated in a five-hour surgery. Yazan is one of 1,000 children treated by Novick’s group since it first came to Libya after the 2011 uprising.

As a young medical resident at the University of Alabama, Novick, now 66, witnessed the suffering of children with congenital heart disease and the staggering disparities in health services. He became determined to try to give children with heart problems the care they need, no matter where they’re born.