In front of two small buildings in the centre of Aswan, with a little garden and waiting area, tens are waiting from all age groups, holding their hearts in their hands… literally!
The start and the progress
Aswan Heart Center was established in 2009 through the Magdi Yacoub Foundation, after 11 years of engagement with Egyptian children through Abul Riche Children’s hospital in Cairo.
The choice of Aswan as the city to host Upper Egypt's only heart clinic isn't known for certain, but most locals speak of Sir Magdi’s vision to serve the city he loved and where he lived as young boy with his father, also a physician.
“There’s also the fact that there isn’t a single centre south of Cairo that serves children with heart conditions, making Aswan the best to serve the underprivileged children of Upper Egypt,” several doctors told Ahram Online.
Some have also said Sir Magdi — knighted by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in 1992 for his outstanding work as a physician — was unable to operate in Cairo, pushed away by mega medical centres, run by business tycoons with connections to authorities.
But regardless of its origin, staff and patients at the centre agree the location was an ideal choice.
Hospital director Dr. Mohamed Zakaria spoke in detail to Ahram Online about how “the prof,” as everyone at the centre calls Sir Magdi, inspired the whole city of Aswan, creating ties with 5 universities in Upper Egypt, liaising with medical communities throughout the world and attracting thousands to the facility.
“Our message is first and foremost to provide the highest level of medical care to Egyptians, without charge and with honour and dignity. Then there’s the training and medical research,” Zakaria said.
“We started in 2009 with 17 doctors, now the hospital staffs 580, all Egyptians. Last October we inaugurated the last phase of our current project — to add 20 beds, double the clinics and make a full floor available for medical research,” he added.
Nine hundred and ninety operations — 60% of which were paediatric — 1500 catheterizations, and 15,000 outpatient visit were completed in 2016. “We are running beyond 100% capacity,” the doctor said.
But for Sir Magdi this wasn’t enough. “Next year we promise over 1000 operations,” Magdi told Ahram Online while rushing to participate in the inauguration of the Aswan Marathon that took place 24 February.
Sir Magdi successfully secured additional young staff by allowing doctors and nurses to serve their mandatory training year at the centre, Zakaria said.
The centre has coordinated special emergency service with Aswan University, allowing it to send patients who need catheter directly to the centre without prior appointment 24/7.
Nobody pays anything
Not a single penny is paid inside the hospital; in fact, they don’t even have a donations centre or a cashier.
“We receive 60 new cases every day and thousands of phone calls,” Reem, a receptionist explained.
“Phone calls, emails, Facebook questions and many others. We respond with a list of documents they need to send [she shows a small card with the required documents and where to send them]. The appointments are communicated to patients who come first for evaluation, and are then scheduled for treatment according to their condition.”
The centre’s small waiting garden was full, with many carrying luggage indicating that they travelled from a long way for their appointments.
“The clinic does not receive patients without appointments; we stress that we cannot receive patients on the spot, as the place would otherwise not properly serve the increasing number of requests,” says Reem.
“We do not take a penny at the hospital, and if a patient says they cannot afford medication or have nowhere to stay, we provide accommodation and give them the medicine,” Reem said with a warm smile.
“We are not allowed to receive donations on site, so nobody can say that bigger donors receive special treatment. Any donations go directly to the banks. Poor or rich, from whatever nationality, everyone is evaluated based on medical need and nothing else.”
There is no shortage of donations, as is apparent from the continued developments at the centre and continuous addition of beds, operations, staff, and above all; dreams!
However, without waiting for more space, the hospital is utilising all its resources to serve patients, and donations are used in every possible way. Each room at the centre includes a plaque with the name of a donor. One peculiar room was a dentist’s clinic!
“Before surgery, heart patients are required to provide a dentist’s certificate, so the Prof recommended that we establish a clinic here so patients do not have to bear the burden of going elsewhere,” Mona Allouba, a Cairene staff member who moved to Aswan to be close to the establishment, told Ahram Online.
Expanding knowledge through research is a fundamental part of the centre’s mission as expressed on its website and in the spirit of all its activities.
“We started a new programme, HVOL, where we study the relationship between genetics and heart disease. We are looking for volunteers,” Yacoub briefly said during the inauguration of the Aswan Marathon. This call resulted in a crowd of runners flooding the centre following the marathon to contribute by undergoing examinations.
Mona Allouba is handling volunteers and explains to everyone what the research is all about.
“There is not a single study conducted in Africa about genetics and the heart. We depend on Western studies, but they might not to be accurate in all cases,” she explained to the volunteers.
In simple terms: there is no research about healthy heart conditions, and no mapping back to the genes of individuals in this part of the world.
“For example, there was strong link between one genetic mutation and heart conditions in the West, but we may discover that such a link does not exist for us. We start with Egypt and hope to be a pioneer in this kind of knowledge,” Allouba said. High hopes lay with healthy volunteers for heart profiles in Egypt.
Sir Magdi was hoping to register 1,000 males and females from all over Egypt, and in a matter of months, the number has reached the halfway mark.
“This is highly unprecedented for such studies,” Allouba continued. “We also now have plans for a clinic in Cairo to receive volunteers.”
“We all feel the huge responsibility of the name we carry,” Zakaria said proudly.
This was not just a statement. It appears that everyone at the centre knows about what is happening across the board.
A heart machine technician explained to Ahram Online that Yacoub hosted a conference a month ago about children’s rheumatoid and adult heart disease.
“For the first time we hear about the relationship between the treatment of children and their future health.”
Around 80 percent of the hospital staff comes from outside Aswan, another technician said.
The centre’s website receives requests from doctors and staff to join the team.
“The future plan is to build a medical city on the other side of the Nile,” says Zakaria. “Thirty-two acres of land are already available and plans are ready to add 500 beds.”
Funding will be the decisive factor, as he explained, “but Egyptians have been very generous with us so far and we count on that.”
Cairo will also now have two clinics, one of which is donated by the Armed Forces at Galaa Hospital, with hopes to receive reports and start outpatient procedures without forcing patients to travel all the way to Aswan.
“These are times when we know we serve as a role model, and every single person the centre is part of this vision,” Zakaria concluded.