As the war to protect Ukraine from a Russian takeover continues, so does the battle to protect their children from the impact of congenital heart defects.
Since 1995, Ukrainian Gift of Life, Inc (UGOL) has provided support for the advancement of pediatric cardiology in Ukraine along with Rotary’s Gift of Life International (GOLI), Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and other alliances developed by UGOL founding Trustee, George Kuzma. Recently, George led a mission trip to Ukraine to assess the level to which pediatric cardiology has progressed after 25 years of support. Rob Raylman, CEO of GOLI, and several Rotarians from New Jersey and Colorado and Dr. Henry Issenberg, recently retired cardiologist and UGOL board member joined him.
This mission team was charged with determining current needs and if it would be productive to continue providing financial, training and logistical assistance.
Ukraine airspace is closed to civilian flights and so the visitors were required to fly through Warsaw to Krakow, Poland and then to motor six hours into Lviv, Ukraine. Although the primary goal of the trip was medical assessment, they also obtained an understanding of the geography and culture. When they checked into the Citadel Inn, they were in awe when they realized that it was originally built in the early 1850s as an imposing fortress and converted during World War II into a Nazi concentration camp (known as the “Tower of Death”) for Ukrainian prisoners. Because it is located near one of the highest points in Lviv, they were treated to a panorama of the city of Lviv.
UGOL and Rotary support is currently focused at St. Nicholas Hospital primarily for pediatric cardio surgery and at Ohmatdet, a pediatric hospital with a neonatal unit, chosen because of their mortality rates and success factors. On their first day in Lviv, the group toured the two hospitals.
The team was greeted by the grateful families of two children who had surgery sponsored by UGOL with a grant from GOLI. One was a 15-month-old girl from nearby Ternopil region whose defect was corrected minimally invasively under her right arm; the other who this past spring, when two-weeks old, received a successful resection of the great aortic arch. This is an extremely complex surgery with a 40% mortality rate.
Dr. Issenberg, formerly a cardiologist with Westchester Medical Center and Montefiore Hospital, spent most of the day reviewing cases and surgical approaches in the cardiology unit. The day culminated with a round table that consisted of surgeons, cardiologists, and anesthesiologists from Kyiv and Lviv and the mission team.
In attendance was Dr. Oleksandr Babliak, a leader in advancing minimally invasive pediatric heart surgery in Ukraine and world-wide who developed techniques to correct approximately 80% of genetic heart defects.
Having determined that the surgical approach at the hospital was as good as any approach in the US, the round table discussion centered on the needs in Ukraine that would continue to advance pediatric cardiology throughout the war.
The group determined that the needs continue to be the sourcing of supplies and equipment (like the recently purchased infant cooling system for the neonatal unit), the UGOL training program at CHOP, and providing for the surgical consumables for children of families in financial need.
Notably, Mr. Raylman, who has developed and implemented scores of surgical missions throughout the world, observed that Ukraine is not a developing country in pediatric cardiology, but one that must be supported so that it can advance even further. It was agreed that this ongoing support would provide Ukraine with the opportunity to contribute on the world stage in the future.
On the next day at a meeting of two Lviv Rotary clubs, there was further testament to the success of efforts and support of pediatric cardiology in Ukraine. The program started by bringing over 100 children to the US for heart surgery in the years immediately following independence from the Soviet Union.
As Kuzma enters the meeting room, the waiting crowd applauds while standing to acknowledge George’s presence. On one side of the room, are Rotarians he has worked with and doctors he has partnered with and supported over 2 decades. On the other side of the room, children, who are now adults, whose hearts he helped to heal, the beneficiaries of the UGOL sponsored surgeries and their families.
“Showing up for the children of Ukraine is so important at this most traumatic, challenging time,” says George as he revels in the joy of seeing children he helped and the adults they have become. Many of them having brought their own children with them. The young adults shared their gratitude for the UGOL outreach, Rotarian hospitality in America, and GOLI financial support for surgeries being performed in Ukraine.
To a person, the beneficiaries of George’s efforts spoke of their most memorable moment of their visit to the United States for surgery – seeing George’s smiling, comforting face as they arrived at the airport and knowing they would be ok. “To this day, I remember George at the airport and the fact he was there for me and so kind and positive made all the difference in the world,” says Ira who was operated on in New York in 1999.
As he said goodbye to everyone, he was sure to leave them with a singular message, “I am the face and all these Rotarians here and in the US are the body. You should know that although I am not always here, you will always be in my heart.”
George’s passion for helping Ukraine has driven him to lead the way for nearly 1,000 children being provided life-saving surgeries their families could not afford while simultaneously engaging UGOL in other projects for doctors and to make pediatric cardiology self-sustainable in Ukraine.
“When Ukraine became independent in 1991, I decided I wanted to begin helping with a program we learned about through our son, a junior Rotary/Interact Club member”, says George.
He continued, “Ed came home from school and asked us to host a mother and her child, Veronika, who needed heart surgery. They were being brought from Poland to America by the local Rotary Gift of Life program. It was a very gratifying experience to see Veronika go home with her mother having hope for a healthy, happy life for her child and it was equally gratifying to begin 30-year friendships with Rotarians and becoming a Rotarian myself… Bringing Gift of Life to Ukraine was the perfect project.”
After creating a UGOL board and raising some funds, George, his wife and his sister embarked on a visit to Ukraine in 1995 with the goal of putting together a strategy for making an impact in a country they held dear in their hearts.
They met with family members and church leaders to identify creditable partners in the venture. Meeting Dr. Yuriy Ivaniv, a respected cardiologist and Rotary member, who had a fax machine… made this project feasible.
UGOL has an alliance with several of the 84 Gift of Life International programs which are based in Rotary Clubs and Districts on 5 continents. Since 1975, this network has helped nearly 50,000 children with heart disease in the developing world.
Rob Raylman is the Chief Executive officer for Gift of Life International. He assumed this role in 2008.
Rob is a life-long resident of New York State. He graduated Hobart College in 1984 with a BS in Political Science. Over the years, he worked for US Senator Alfonse D’Amato and held the position of Vice President for Browning-Ferris Industries (at the time, the second largest international solid waste company in the world). In 2008, Rob created the position of CEO for Gift of Life International. Since then, he was visited 38 countries on 5 continents to build the Gift of Life Global Network of 84 affiliates. During Rob’s tenure with Gift of Life International, 30 affiliates have been created while over 35,000 children have received care for their heart defects.
Rob focuses on strategically building bridges between Gift of Life programs, foreign Governments, Rotary Clubs and Districts, like-minded organizations and hospital administrations in order to address the Global Crisis of congenital heart defects.