As the world becomes increasingly more interconnected, residents from different parts of the globe often come together to help each other in unexpected ways. Against all the odds, an international surgical team returned from strife-torn Ukraine last week after providing life-saving cardiac operations for children suffering from genetic heart defects. The mission was a joint collaboration between International Children’s Heart Foundation (ICHF) and the Irish humanitarian aid agency Adi Roche’s Chernobyl Children International (CCI).
For the past 12 years teams of surgeons from the US and Canada have travelled to Ukraine and Belarus six times a year to perform operations on children who have been diagnosed with a condition known as “Chernobyl Heart”. 6,000 children are born with genetic heart diseases and defects in Ukraine each year. Medical experts there say these conditions, some of which they describe as “Chernobyl Heart”, are linked to radiation leaks from the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident in 1986.
The surgical team from International Children’s Heart Foundation arrived in Kharkiv for the one week mission trip on May 19th. The team, composed mostly of residents of Canada and the United States, was led by ICHF surgeon Dr. Kathleen Fenton. Dr. Fenton has lived in Nicaragua since 2006, working with Nicaraguan surgeon Dr. Sergio Hernandez to develop a program of pediatric heart surgery.
Asked whether she was afraid to travel to Ukraine in the midst of such turmoil, Dr. Fenton responded: “We rely completely on the assessment of the local doctors to tell us whether or not it is safe for us to come. I personally know well and have a lot of confidence in Dr. Igor Polivenok”, Head of Cardiac at Kharkiv Hospital, where the operations were carried out. “If he tells us that we can come, I am not worried, but I will follow and encourage the team to follow his advice regarding where we can go while we are in Kharkiv.”
During the short mission trip, life-saving cardiac operations were performed successfully on 20 children while additional children were evaluated for possible intervention on future trips to Ukraine. Meanwhile, back at home in Managua, Dr. Hernandez prepared for an ICHF trip to Jimani, Dominican Republic, where he will got the team started on surgery until Dr. Fenton arrived from Ukraine.
The “open heart” surgery programme to save the lives of these children is a joint initiative between Ireland, Ukraine and the US under the direction of the renowned US cardiologist of Dr William Novick, Founder and Director, ICHF and Adi Roche, CEO, Chernobyl Children International. The $4 million – the programme cost so far – has been raised entirely in Ireland by CCI donors and volunteer fundraising activities. Dr. Novick’s pioneering surgery, featured in the 2003 Academy Award winning documentary “Chernobyl Heart”.
In April, the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine forced the suspension of the life-saving cardiac surgery programme for a second time this year. Of the 6,000 babies born with heart defects in Ukraine each year, 50 per cent are not operated on because of lack of facilities and qualified medical teams in Ukraine. Without cardiac surgery the children, who need complex open heart operations, have little hope of living beyond 5 years.
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