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THE BOTTOM OF THE HEART | Inside a Tanzanian heart surgery

I’m catching my breath at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Another long journey was nearing its end.

This trip had started in a refugee camp in Kenya and continued to the drought affected areas of Tanzania. And now finally with a moment to myself, I needed to decide whether I enter ‘’sleep mode’’ until a flight back to Paris in a couple of days or squeeze the lemon for one more story.

If you're reading this, I chose to chase the story.

Here in Tanzania, I was hoping to make a stop in one of Dar es Salaam's Hospitals.

I wanted to meet a friend I had met in Israel years ago, under extraordinary circumstances.

When we met, Dr. Godwin Godfrey was training to become a paediatric cardiac specialist in Israel. I was filming a news story about a girl undergoing surgery that day.

We met inside the operating theatre, and when I interviewed him after, I was very impressed with the person in front of me. Godwin was humble but sharp, and looked like a person on a mission.

Dr. Godwin finished five years of training in Israel, returned to Tanzania, and became the first paediatric heart surgeon in Tanzania. A prestigious position that comes with heavy responsibility and a phone number that is never available.

Now five years after our first encounter, I was determined to see where his story had taken him. Through a mutual friend, I was able to send a message to Dr. Godwin, saying that I would soon arrive in Tanzania and was hoping to document his work.

But, since landing in Tanzania, I haven’t heard from him.

The silence caused the fatigue to kick in, it was time to give up chasing this story: “I've already done enough for this trip, maybe next time..."

But these were voices of defeat, as I call them.

It took a shower and dinner to refuel and feel rejuvenated again.

Although I still couldn't get Dr. Godwin on the phone, I decided to try to get to him regardless, and if the story was meant to happen, it would.

Searching for the doc

The next morning, I set off for the beating heart of Dar es Salaam to find the hospital Dr. Godwin was at, hoping he would be there. I hadn’t planned anything, or got the proper permissions to film in the hospital.

But I figured all I could do was try, and worst case scenario, I’ll head back to the beach and see out the rest of my trip there.

Arriving at the hospital, after a quick check, the guards at the gate let me in without trouble.

The receptionist at the cardiac institute directed me right to the floor of Dr. Godwin's department with no problem either.

Within minutes I was standing outside the ward, waiting for an answer - and there he was.

Dr. Godwin came to the lobby to pick me up with a big smile on his face.

"What's up brother, come quick, we are about to start,” he tells me in Hebrew.

I was so excited that he was actually here. I was glad that he recognised me.

But I didn't consider asking what is it that we're getting started with?

After a brief introduction and a tour of the department, a nurse handed me clothes to change into. She said anxiously, "we'll have to do something about that,” pointing at my filthy camera that had been through all kinds of hell in the past couple of weeks.

She brought me antiseptic and gave me 10 minutes to shine the camera before they got started.

An hour ago, I did not know Dr. Goodwin would even be here, and now I'm getting ready to document him performing open-heart surgery on a child. I asked Dr. Godwin with admiration, "what are the chances I located you here before surgery?"

He looked at me with a sad smile and explained, "700 children are currently waiting to be operated on, so the chances to find me or the team - before, during or after surgery, are high. He continued:

“It is still not enough. We can only perform 200 operations a year since our crew is small; we are always responding to the demand to save more lives."

After that quote, I made a sharp switch in my head. I started focusing more on the story I find myself in, putting aside the thrill of my own little lucky adventure.

Enter surgery

We hurry into the operating room, with the staff instructing me where to stand and where not to. I wasn't able to get around too much but being there, standing in this room with an 11 year old boy lying between life and death was an intense moment.

The little boy - J - on the bed was suffering from congenital and rheumatic heart disease, which was detected just before it would be too late for an operation.

With Dr. Godwin at the helm, J was in good hands. It was like watching a symphony conducted by a gifted leader. Every player knew precisely his role, and the entire team worked their magic on this precious child.

I noticed the team were all locals except for one doctor who arrived from China to learn from Dr. Godwin's rich experience. The atmosphere was calm and professional - it looked like an episode of Grey's Anatomy, just the East African Version.

Dr. Godwin talked to me a lot during the surgery and did it in Hebrew. I noticed that he missed speaking the language he learned impressively in the five years he spent running the hallways of Wolfson Hospital, near Tel Aviv.

He arrived in Israel under the umbrella of Save a Child's Heart (SACH), an Israeli organization with the mission of improving the quality of paediatric cardiac care for children around the world.

It becomes clear that Dr. Godwin is not here to simply fill a position. He has a very vivid dream; a dream to see every child with heart disease in Tanzania, getting treatment here in Tanzania.

In the process, he’s also become quite an inspiring figure for many young doctors, to fulfil their aspirations and help improve the welfare of the entire country.

The surgery ended successfully.

J is transferred back to the intensive care unit and will soon be able to run and breathe normally. However, for the staff, there is not a moment to breathe.

The team is immediately getting ready for another operation.

And for me, it is time to go home with a bucket full of stories and thoughts of life, death, and one sterilized room between them.


About Save a Child’s Heart

Save a Child’s Heart's goal is to improve the health and welfare of all children, regardless of the child's religion, gender or nationality.

To date, Save a Child's Heart has saved the lives of more than 5,300 children from 62 countries in Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, and throughout the Middle East and trained more than 120 medical team members from these countries.

Since Dr. Godwin returned to Tanzania, his friends from SACH arrive every year, all the way from Israel, for an intensive week of operations to help meet the demand for surgeries

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