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US Heart Specialist Treats Children in War-Torn Libya

Yazan, 1, cries as he is prepared for heart surgery at the Tajoura National Heart Center in Tripoli, Libya. An international team of experts, part of the Novick Cardiac Alliance, regularly flies into Libya to perform surgery on patients like Yazan. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
US Heart Specialist Treats Children in War-Torn Libya
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Yazan is a one-year-old heart disease patient in Libya. He was born with only one of the usual four chambers, or main parts, of the human heart. His heart pumped so little blood that when Yazan cried, his skin would turn black. He required an operation to survive. But Libya only has one doctor that does such operations on young children.

About 1,200 babies with heart defects are born in Libya every year. Usually, about 150 of them are in urgent need of heart operations. Most do not get them and they die in their first year, said William Novick, a children’s heart doctor from the United States.

“To me this is simply an unacceptable situation that needs our attention,” said Novick.

Novick leads an international team of experts called the Novick Cardiac Alliance. They travel to Libya often to perform operations on patients like Yazan.

Libya has been in major disorder since 2011, when opposition forces ousted long-time leader Muammar Gadhafi. Armed conflict continues in the country with foreign countries supporting opposing armed groups. The latest fighting began last spring and has killed hundreds of civilians.

The conflict also has severely affected health care in the country. The World Health Organization describes the Libyan health care system as overworked, unproductive and lacking in medicine and equipment.

Novick’s team was the best, and perhaps last, hope for Yazan. For treatment, however, the boy and his family had to travel to the most dangerous place in Libya, its capital Tripoli.

Last month, Yazan and his family arrived in the city after a 1,500 kilometer trip from their home in the desert. On February 26, Yazan had a five-hour operation to begin repair on his heart. It went well. Although Yazan will need one more operation, Novick and his team expect him to fully recover.

Yazan, 1, sits with his mother before his heart surgery at the Tajoura National Heart Center in Tripoli, Libya, on Feb. 27, 2020.
Yazan, 1, sits with his mother before his heart surgery at the Tajoura National Heart Center in Tripoli, Libya, on Feb. 27, 2020.

Novick’s group has treated 1,000 children in Libya since it began treatments there in 2012.

But his Cardiac Alliance was born much earlier.

Novick was a medical student at the University of Alabama when he first witnessed the suffering of children born with heart disease. He also learned about the problems families experience trying to get care for their children. He decided then to work to help children with heart problems no matter where they are born.

For nearly 30 years, Novick and his partners have made hundreds of trips to 32 countries including Ukraine, Nigeria, Iraq, Iran and Colombia.

For the February visit to Libya, Novick’s team included 20 volunteer doctors and nurses. The team performed 10 difficult open-heart operations in the country’s west.

The team worked in areas controlled by each of the two main armed groups.

Novick said that a main goal of his group is “to be apolitical and help the children.”

Novick’s group also trains Libyan doctors and nurses to develop the country’s health care system.

He said, “We’re not going to be here forever and we shouldn’t be here forever.”

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana reported this story for the Associated Press. Jonathan Evans adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

defect – n. a physical problem that causes something to be less valuable, effective, healthy, etc.