Kateryna Shchepaniak learned that her daughter, Polina, had a hole in her heart when she was just 11 days old. But living in Ukraine, Kateryna was unable to get care for Polina, now 9 years old, amid the ongoing Russian invasion.
So, after fleeing to Poland, the two took a nearly 10-hour flight from Warsaw to John F. Kennedy airport in New York to get Paulina the life-changing heart procedure she needed.
They had the help of Gift of Life Long Island, a Rotarian organization that connects children in developing countries with the necessary care for heart disease, one of the group's directors, Robert Nathan, told TODAY.
Earlier this week, a team at Catholic Health St. Francis Hospital & Heart Center performed a minimally invasive procedure to close the hole between the two chambers of Polina's heart.
“It is always a special day when you can give an assist to someone who is struggling through tough times,” Dr. Sean Levchuck, the doctor who performed the procedure and chair of pediatric Cardiology at St. Francis, said in a press release.
While many people have fled Ukraine since the war began in February, vulnerable children with underlying health conditions have been left behind and face significant challenges in getting care, TODAY reported previously.
“It’s especially great given the circumstances that surround this little girl’s case. She comes to St. Francis from a country that is in pieces and going through the worst of times," Dr. Levchuck continued. "I know I speak for the whole team when I say how honored, blessed and grateful we are to be given the opportunity to help this beautiful child live a long and healthy life.”
The condition is called an atrial or ventral septal defect depending on which of the heart’s chambers are affected. Sometimes, the holes close on their own as children get older and many people may be OK with regular heart checkups and monitoring, the Mayo Clinic says. But surgery is typically required to treat larger holes.
"I personally feel like a million bucks every time we save a child," Nathan said. Gift of Life Long Island has been working with Rotary Clubs around the world to get children the surgery they need at New York hospitals for decades, he added.
That includes meeting the families at the airport, having them stay with a local host family and accompanying them to the surgery. In this case, Nathan said, they were lucky that one of their local members spoke Ukrainian and could communicate the details of the procedure to Polina's mother.
For Shchepaniak, getting her daughter the surgery has been a big relief. “It was always a big scare for me every time she got the flu or a cold because of the hole in her heart," she said in the press release, "but now I don’t have to worry.”