Andy Tolobua was born with congenital heart disease but went untreated for more than ten years. Although he spent his early life in an out of the hospital due to symptoms he suffered from, an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan long remained out of reach. Two years ago, when Andy was 12, he returned to the hospital once more. Suffering from severe joint pain and showing signs of heart disease, he was diagnosed with Rheumatic fever. He began a regimen of medication, but the repair of his heart remained elusive. Luckily, a semblance of hope came the following summer. In July of 2018, Dr. David Rose and a team of cardiologists arrived from Australia to screen children at the National Referral Hospital in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands.
Responsibility for service delivery rests entirely with publicly-owned facilities that are funded via fixed budget allocations, and available to all Solomon Islanders, while the private sector plays a very minimal role in health. More specifically, to meet the needs of children suffering from heart disease, visiting specialist teams in pediatric cardiology host local screening missions at the National Referral Hospital - the highest level of care offered in the Solomon Islands - and cardiac surgery cases are referred overseas, most often to Sydney, Australia.
Such was the case when Andy was finally appropriately diagnosed with Aortic Regurgitation. Dr. Rose warned that 'Andy's condition was severe and needed immediate surgical repair. In the same summer, Mike Puia, a senior journalist for the Island Sun newspaper in the Solomon Islands visited the Wolfson Medical Center on a delegation tour for Pacific media professionals arranged by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That day, he met a little girl from Fiji, named Abigail, who had undergone a lifesaving heart procedure through Save a 'Child's Heart.
In a series of articles detailing his trip, Mr. Puia wrote a piece entitled, "Hope for Kids: Israel offers free service for children with heart disease," describing the story of young Abigail and explaining the work of Save a 'Child's Heart. Indeed, 'Mike's piece in the Island Sun would prove to be the lifeline that 'Andy's family needed. Upon reading that "based on medical reports, SACH takes care of the 'child's travel to Israel, transportation, accommodation...and treatment" 'Andy's father, Jimmy, considered whether or not their family might be able to seek out such treatment. The next steps included contacting Mr. Puia, applying for care through Save a 'Child's Heart, and waiting to see if his son would be accepted. In the meantime, 'Andy's family pursued a national media and crowdfunding campaign to secure an opportunity for Andy to receive treatment. Though the family could not collect enough funding in time to secure treatment for Andy on their own, the energy of his campaign was palpable. As Mr. Leliana Firisua, Honorary Consul of the State of Israel in the Solomon Islands, wrote in an email to Save a 'Child's Heart "It is a national campaign by every Solomon Islander backed by the media ...in support of young Andy Tolobua." His support was bolstered by that of Israeli Ambassador to the Solomon Islands, Tibor Shalev-Schlosser, who also continued to advocate for 'Andy's treatment, specifically in Israel. The Save a 'Child's Heart team was excited too. If 'Andy's condition was treatable, the worldwide SACH family was ready to take it on. Immediately, support for his treatment was pledged by longtime SACH supporters, David and Bindy Koadlow of Australia, hand in hand with 'Australia's Goodridge Foundation.
Once it was determined that Andy was operable, the SACH team began making arrangements for 'Andy's transfer. But before having Andy travel across the world, an alternate solution appeared to lay right at the doorstep of the Tolobuas. Trained by Save a 'Child's Heart, Dr. Yayu Mekonnen, Ethiopia's first fully-trained pediatric heart surgeon was finishing his last months of an 18-month fellowship at the Royal Children's Hospital (RCH), Melbourne before returning to his home country to continue his dedicated work with the support of SACH. 'Andy's case was sent straight to the team there for evaluation. Unfortunately, a long waiting list meant that 'Andy's much-needed surgery might be delayed. Not wanting to risk his condition becoming irreversible, in June of this year, almost one year after 'Andy's life-threatening diagnosis, the Tolobua family was informed by the SACH team that their son would make the journey across the world for lifesaving treatment in Israel. More good news came once a leg of Andy and his 'mother's flights were donated by Cathay Pacific airlines, and the remaining logistics were arranged to fly to Tel Aviv.
Before Andy and Nester took flight, 'Andy's father Jimmy expressed his gratitude in a letter to Save a 'Child's Heart:
On behalf of Nester and my family, I would like to take this time to sincerely thank all of you for your time and commitment toward making this lifesaving mission for our son. For all this time, we were hopeless that Andy would have another chance in life. We've tried all possible means available here with the government of Solomon Islands and have failed. We have lots of children here in the Solomon Islands who have problems with their heart. Parents are hopelessly waiting for any help to save their children here. I thank God for having such wonderful people like all of you as our friends now. You gave us hope and courage to keep on trusting in God that He will send us someone with a BIG Heart to save my son's...Andy is my only son. I know you all know how hard it is for us all this time. THANK YOU SO MUCH. Our heartfelt thanks to the SACH team, Pacific Island Advisor Sara Sofer, Fiji Honorary Consul Mary-Clare, Ambassador Tobor...and of course Consul Leliana Firiaua. We pray that God will richly bless all of you.
The journey itself took Andy and his mother, Nester, nearly 14,000KM across the world from the Solomon Islands to New Guinea, where last-minute approval of medical clearance for Andy to fly was requested and obtained moments before takeoff, to Hong Kong and finally Israel, where the anxious mother and child arrived with great relief. Dedicated to the health and welfare of their son, 'Andy's parents could finally place hope in the medical team at Save a 'Child's Heart.
On July 18, 2019, Andy underwent heart surgery for the repair of his heart disease. Following surgery, Andy healed in the 'children's ward of the Wolfson Medical Center with his mother by his side. Upon his return to the 'Children's Home, Andy loves to play with Abdalla and Zaharani from Zanzibar and watch over the younger kids too - always with a smile on his face. He is now excited to go back home, play rugby, and one day pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. The SACH team and his family are undoubtedly excited to see him pursue his dreams as well!