DUBAI // In a room filled with doctors, visitors and a bunch of red balloons, each shaped like a heart, three-year-old James Edwards wandered through the melee, his eyes set firmly on the heart-shaped cake sitting against one wall.
After successful open-heart surgery on January 26, the brown-eyed, British-Portuguese toddler was more than welcome to the treat, said his mother, Maria, who is from Portugal.
James was one of 21 patients, from babies to teenagers, who last month received free heart surgery through the Nabadat initiative.
Created by Dubai Health Authority (DHA) and the Mohammed bin Rashid Charity and Humanitarian Establishment, it offers treatment to Emiratis, expatriates and foreigners who either cannot afford it, or do not have the treatment readily available.
More than half the patients treated this year, who came from all over the world including Yemen, Algeria and Afghanistan, underwent open-heart surgery after being recommended to Nabadat by their cardiologists. The remainder were treated for defects between ventricles or obstructions in their valves.
Almost half of all the patients treated last month were Emirati.
Through Nabadat, which means heartbeat, the financial burden of the costly operation was taken care of, said Mrs Edwards, who has lived in Dubai with her family of five for five years.
Although the cost of treatment was the least of the family's worries, having someone else take care of it allowed them to concentrate all their efforts on James, who was born with a hole in his heart.
"It costs Dh360,000, but it's not about the money," Mrs Edwards said.
Being treated by a team of world-class doctors and in a local hospital both reduced the amount of travelling James had to do and kept his family nearby. The toddler also underwent surgery to correct the position of two arteries.
The operations are carried out by cardiologists from DHA hospitals (Dubai, Rashid and Latifa) as well as visiting doctors from San Donato Hospital, in Milan, Italy. "We did not want to take him away from his family, so it was about logistics," said James's mother. "The trauma of being away from his [older] brother for a whole week" was another issue.
Since its launch in 2007, Nabadat has treated more than 300 patients. The operations that took place last week were all successful, said Dr Abdallah Raweh, the president of the Italian-Emirates Friendship Association and one of the visiting cardiologists.
Given the demand for help, Nabadat has plans to take its services farther afield, travelling to countries such as Egypt and Cameroon in the near future.
"Every year we see about 100 children and we try to treat as many as possible. Now ... one of the aims is to become more international and go across the border," said Dr Obaid Al Jassim, a consultant cardiac surgeon and head of the cardiothoracic surgery department at Dubai Hospital, where all the recent surgeries took place.
"We've been doing these types of workshops for the children in the UAE and the children who are coming by themselves. We have so many demands so we thought now [was the time] to go international."
Countries that Nabadat are in negotiations with to support include Sudan, Yemen, Algeria, Bangladesh and Pakistan, Dr Al Jassim said. The first international mission is expected to take place in April.
James was alert and attempting to speak just a few hours after his surgery, admittedly when asked by his parents whether he wanted any peanuts.
Now, eight days after surgery, the operation has noticeably improved his energy levels.
Discharged yesterday, after he got a celebratory piece of cake, James and his family expressed their thanks to the doctors who helped them.
"We have been so grateful. They didn't spare anything at all to make us feel comfortable, which was really important," his mother said.
A workshop will take place in Dubai in June. Anyone wishing to make enquiries can contact Dubai Hospital on 04 219 5000.