DUBAI // For three hours yesterday, Piru Karam Baghsh Bloushi stood anxiously outside the operating room waiting for his son to come out of surgery.
Seven-month-old Ahmad suffered Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect that involves four abnormalities in the heart.
They included a hole between the right and left ventricles, and a narrowing of the pulmonary valve that connects the heart with the lungs.
After Mr Bloushi's wife gave birth to twins at Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Hospital in Ajman, the Iranian man immediately noticed that one of his newborns had difficulty breathing.
"I could see that Mohammed was inhaling and exhaling normally, while Ahmad couldn't breathe," he said.
"So I brought the doctors' attention to it. They told me that my son may have a heart defect and that I need to see cardiac specialists."
Mr Bloushi was referred to Dubai Hospital, which took Ahmad as one of 22 cases to be treated at no cost.
The treatment was part of an initiative by the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation in collaboration with 10 paediatric cardiology specialists from the San Donato Polyclinic in Milan, Italy.
Ahmad went into surgery about 9am and came out at noon. In those three hours, the Italian doctors were able to correct all four of the child's heart abnormalities in one procedure.
"I was worried for my son's life," Mr Bloushi said. "But thank God I was rewarded with this wonderful gift."
This marks the DHA's 10th such event since the programme began in 2007, and the doctors have treated more than 260 children, ranging from newborn to 19.
The Italians visit Dubai about three times a year, and the patients come from the UAE and other countries including Iran, Oman, Syria and Bangladesh.
The costs for treating Emiratis are covered by the DHA and those for expatriates are covered by the foundation. The doctors arrived on Saturday and plan to complete all 22 procedures in 10 days.
Twelve of the patients will undergo open-heart surgery and the others will undergo an exploratory procedure. Another 35 children are scheduled for clinical consultations.
Children are selected according to the severity of their conditions, said Dr Obaid Al Jassim, a consultant cardiac surgeon with the DHA.
"There are significant benefits from this project," Dr Al Jassim said. "It allows us to reduce the economic and social burden on families, to reduce the cost of sending patients abroad for treatment, and provides us with an opportunity to exchange knowledge and experience."
It is estimated that if the patients were to undergo open-heart surgery for congenital defects in the UK, the cost would be between Dh150,000 and Dh300,000, depending on various risk factors such as the complexity of the defects and the child's age and weight.
The exploratory procedures range from Dh10,000 to Dh30,000.
The only facility in the UAE to offer paediatric cardiac surgery for congenital heart disease outside this programme is Sheikh Khalifa Medical City.
The costs are significantly less, ranging between Dh50,000 and Dh100,000.
But doctors have said the hospital often has a backlog of patients, with more than 350 children undergoing surgery a year, and has a requirement for special referrals.
Dr Al Jassim said he hoped to make the service continuously available in Dubai when Al Jalila Children's Specialty Hospital opens next year.
"By bringing the specialists here, we can train our local doctors and slowly develop our expertise so that we can operate on our own patients," he said.
The survival rate for these procedures is 95 per cent, up from 70 per cent nearly two decades ago, said Dr Alessandro Frigiola, a chief of cardiac surgery at San Donato.
Those who are not treated immediately are likely to die within the first two years of life, Dr Frigiola said.
"Nearly half of patients will have total correction and be able to lead a completely normal life," he said. "The other half, with very complex cases, will require follow-ups and may need re-operation."
Ahmad is one of the lucky ones.
"He can live life normally, play football and do whatever he loves," Dr Frigiola said.
"There is a sense of great satisfaction when you see a baby that was once blue before the surgery transform to have a healthy pink complexion. It is truly remarkable."