Why Marwa Couldn’t Get Her Heart Fixed

Marwa visits Dr. Novick get a check-up after her life-saving heart operation.

It looked good from the outside.

Six decades of lucrative oil production made Libya one of Africa’s wealthiest countries. There was relatively low poverty and relatively high levels of education. Health care was free, and there was a good track record of child immunization—often a good indicator of general health. 

The country was largely dependent on imports for most of their food needs, which is why embargoes in the 1990’s hurt, but Libya projected a very self-sufficient economic image.

The reality in Libya was not quite so rosy. There was limited investment in health care for many years, and ordinary Libyans have often had difficulty accessing care. 

Shortages of local clinics and hospitals, especially in rural areas, was a chronic problem. Many facilities were “closed for maintenance” for years at a time. And a number of clinics and hospitals funded by the Ministry of Health for years, never actually existed. Corruption siphoned precious dollars from the system.

Educating medical professionals was another area rife with problems. There was an oversupply in some professions but no ongoing development, so knowledge and skills were quickly outdated. There were not enough trained nurses, so the country was dependent on foreign workers. And there was no system to develop highly specialized skills like those needed to repair complicated heart defects in children—to help children like Marwa. 

Together, these elements fostered a lack of trust in the medical system. Anyone with means went abroad for care, many to neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt. In 2007 it was estimated that more than $100 million was spent by Libyans to get health care out of the country1.

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For families like Marwa’s, without the means to go abroad, it meant their only health care option was to join long lines at whatever clinics they could find open. Or to visit overcrowded specialty hospitals ill-equipped to handle issues outside their specialty. Facilities which should have been well equipped, weren’t. 

After many years of dealing with a lacking system, everything came into sharp focus for Marwa’s family by the birth of their daughter. Doctors initially missed her life-threatening heart defect, but her mother knew there was something very wrong with her daughter. After many medical visits, they finally got a diagnosis—and Marwa was declared to too sick to be operable.

There are new concerns since 2011. The foreign medical professionals on which the system was so dependent left to avoid the violence, and most haven’t returned. The shortage is particularly acute in rural and specialty areas. 

And now there is ISIS to worry about. In areas under their control, clinics, hospitals, and doctors are often targeted in an effort to destabilize areas through violence.

Marwa had no options to get the lifesaving heart surgery she needed. The good news for Marwa is that help found her! Our team of international doctors and nurses came to Libya despite the warnings and ominous news reports. Despite an under equipped heart center and very green staff, they fixed her heart. And they taught the techniques to local doctors and nurses, all of whom were eager to learn. 

Marwa is living proof that a healthcare system can fail, but she’s also proof that it can be helped! You can make sure Libya’s children get the help they need by sending more doctors to save lives and wage peace. 

Will you join us? Click here to see how.


Rebuilding the Libyan Health System: Post-revolution, World Health Organization, February 2012.