A young child who was unable to receive critically-needed surgery in war-torn Ukraine has gotten the gift of life from doctors on Long Island. On Friday, she thanked the Gift of Life team that made it possible.
Polina Shchepaniak is only 9 years old and now she can finally return to being a kid. “I am very good,” Polina said. “Five days, I am very fast running and I like it.”
As long as she can remember, Polina’s life was limited due to a dangerous heart defect. A hole between the two upper chambers of her heart caused constant shortness of breath and fatigue. When the war broke out at the beginning of 2022, accessing the life-altering surgery she needed became impossible at home.
“She was actually scheduled for surgery in Ukraine back in March, but because of the bombings and the air raids, they couldn’t risk it because power would shut down and you would lose the patient,” said Harry Miller with Gift of Life Long Island.
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 amid the ongoing Russian invasion. After fleeing to Poland, mother and daughter took the nearly 10-hour flight from Warsaw to John F. Kennedy airport in New York to get Polina the life-changing heart procedure she needed.
They had the help of Gift of Life International affiliate Gift of Life Long Island. Gift of Life connects children in developing countries with the necessary care to treat children with heart disease.
Earlier this month, 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
“I personally feel like a million bucks every time we save a child,” said Robert Nathan, a Gift of Life Long Island director. Gift of Life has been working with Rotary Clubs around the world to get children the surgery they need at New York hospitals for decades.
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, they were fortunate that one of their local members spoke Ukrainian and could communicate the details of the procedure to Polina’s mother.
For Kateryna, 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, but now I don’t have to worry.”
Polina’s story has understandably received a significant amount of attention in the media, locally, across the country, and around the world. Gift of Life International is always grateful to get coverage that helps to tell our stories.
“It’s not about us, it’s about the work we are doing.” says Rob Raylman, CEO of Gift of Life International. “The more people know about Gift of Life, the more financial support our programs receive from our generous donors. It all helps us to heal even more little hearts around the world.”
Brenda Small is the Operations Consultant at Gift of Life International. She assumed this role in 2012.
Brenda was inspired to help children in need with heart disease after her third child was born with a complex heart defect and underwent successful open-heart surgery in her first year of life. Brenda learned of Gift of Life International in 2006 at which time she established Gift of Life Los Angeles where she holds the position of President. Between 2008 and 2012, Brenda volunteered her time to help with Gift of Life International in addition to running Gift of Life Los Angeles.
From 2012 to 2022, Brenda held the position of Director of Operations for Gift of Life International. Today, she continues this lifesaving work as Operations Consultant. Brenda also implemented the Nutritional Program in El Salvador in 2008 which has now provided nutritional support to more than 250 children and their families. Brenda has traveled with many of the Gift of Life training teams and witnessed these precious lives being saved.