Irish girl gets vital surgery in Israel

By Ruth Eglash, December 23, 2009
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Irish-born Rachel Casey and her father. Her heart was “like Swiss Cheese”

Irish-born Rachel Casey and her father. Her heart was “like Swiss Cheese”

The prognosis was grim last year for Rachel Casey, an Irish two-year-old with Downs Syndrome who was born with hundreds of holes in her heart. Her local physician had not managed to operate successfully, and her options were running out.

“She had been very sick,” recalled her father, Gerry, 40.

“Her heart was described as being like ‘Swiss Cheese’, and her doctor said that if she was not operated on quickly, the chance to close the holes would pass.”

But there was one final option. Doctors in the family’s home town of Sligo in the north west of Ireland recommended that Rachel be brought to Israel to receive treatment from world-renowned paediatric cardiac consultant Dr Elchanan Bruckheimer at Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Netanya.

A warm climate, the doctors added, could increase Rachel’s life expectancy for up to five years.

Mr Casey, an Irish Defence Forces captain, immediately volunteered for the multi-national United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) peace-keeping mission, and requested to be deployed to Israel.

‘There are no equivalent services for Downs Syndrome children under two in Ireland

The family — Gerry, Theresa and their four children — arrived in Jerusalem exactly a year ago.

“I feel very lucky because the Irish Defence Forces agreed and selected me to serve,” said Mr Casey.

“It is the only family-accompanied mission available for Irish Officers.”

“We arrived during Operation Cast Lead,” recalled Theresa, 38.

“Our family in Ireland were shocked that we decided to stay even though there was a war going on, but Jerusalem was so peaceful and we could see no reason to leave.”

Within months, Rachel underwent heart surgery at Schneider, and even though the doctor did not succeed in closing all the holes in her heart, the quality of her life has greatly improved.

In addition to the medical treatment, the family also found solace at the Jerusalem-based Shalva Association for Mentally and Physically Disabled Children, which offers a wide range of therapeutic treatments and emotional support for parents and children.

“I can only compare it to Ireland but even with very little experience at being the mother of a special needs child I can see that the services at Shalva are amazing,” said Theresa, adding that in Ireland there are no equivalent services for Downs Syndrome children under two.

Visiting Shalva, which is located in the strictly Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof, offered the family a rare insight into an Israel that is not usually seen by diplomatic officials posted here.

“We would never have visited a religious, Orthodox area of Jerusalem if we had not gone to Shalva,” said Mr Casey.

Last month, Mr Casey organised a special event for the international diplomatic community to show them Israel’s softer side. Ireland’s Ambassador to Israel Breifne O’Reilly, Ireland’s Representative to the Palestinian Authority James Carroll and UNTSO Deputy Chief of Staff Colonel Tim Rotonen from Finland all attended.

This month, the Casey family has also had the chance to meet Israel’s President Shimon Peres and express to him the gratitude the family feels towards Israel for helping Rachel.

“Israel gets such bad press all the time,” said Mr Casey.

“It’s important for people to see a different side.”

    Last updated: 1:16pm, December 24 2009