NABLUS, West Bank (AP) — After Dr. Saleem Haj-Yahia performed the first-ever successful artificial heart transplant in the West Bank last month he was greeted with flowers, balloons and cheering crowds and publicly praised by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The British-educated cardiologist has become a media darling in his native land and now speaks of ambitious plans to raise the level of the entire Palestinian medical infrastructure.
"I've done enough in the U.K. and now it's time to do something in my country for my people," said Haj-Yahia, 47. "In the U.K. you cannot have a bigger impact, because the system is working well while here any significant efforts can make a difference."
Haj-Yahia's goal involves far more than mere national pride. He seeks to increase Palestinian medical self-sufficiency, and make the Palestinian medical system less dependent on its Israeli counterpart. For years, any complicated operations or sophisticated treatments have had to be carried out in Israeli hospitals, creating both a dependency and a major expenditure for the already cash-strapped Palestinian government.
"Most of the Palestinian patient transfers to Israel were heart and cancer cases and we managed to reduce them largely," said Haj-Yahia, seated in his office at An-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus. "Some Palestinian doctors from New York, experts in transplanting marrow, will join in the near future and we will be in the first line in the world in this field."
Since returning home in 2014 to become dean of the medical school at the An-Najah teaching hospital, Haj-Yahia has focused on improving the hospital's capabilities in the fields of cancer treatment and organ transplants. Local health officials say that his efforts have already yielded tangible results.
Dr. Amera Hindi, head of the Medical Transfer Unit in the Palestinian Health Ministry, said the money spent on transferring Palestinian patients to Israeli hospitals has dropped by 30 percent in the last year. She credited the "development of the medical services in the Palestinian hospitals."
The Palestinians see increasing the self-reliance of their medical system as a harbinger of autonomy on other fronts and a form of preparation for the overall independence they seek as a future state.
"If we succeed in building the system, the medicine will see huge developments" Haj-Yahia said. "It's our duty to build the system with the new generation of doctors who are joining our universities."
Haj-Yahia was born in an Arab village in Israel and earned his first medical degree at the prestigious Technion in the northern city of Haifa before pursuing higher education in Britain. He trained in the Royal Brompton & Harefield Hospital in London, where he served as a transplant fellow from 2002-2009 and was involved in the development of the artificial heart program and lung transplant program.
After spending four years running a cardiac transplant program in Glasgow, Scotland, he decided to accept An-Najah's offer to return home — saying it offered him a rare opportunity to really influence change.
In January, he transplanted an artificial heart into an 18-year-old boy who was suffering from severe heart failure.
"He was on the verge of death and would have died in two months if this operation wasn't done," Haj-Yahia said.
The patient, Ahmad Sabareh, now says he is making plans to attend university soon. "I lifted weights today. I'm doing well," he said while watching TV in his hospital room. "It's a new life ... I have lots of plans for the future."
Haj-Yahia's work has resonated widely in Palestinian society, where medical education is relatively new, particularly among the students at An-Najah, 4,000 of whom study medicine, pharmacy and nursing.
"Professor Haj-Yahia inspires every one of us. He made us much more confident of our education and ourselves," said second-year student Dalia Yaesh.