For Ukrainian girl, St. Francis, Gift of Life deliver life-changing surgery


A nine-year-old girl from war-torn Ukraine can now run and play thanks to life-changing heart surgery she received through St. Francis Hospital & Heart Center and Gift of Life Long Island.

Polina Shchepaniak needed surgery to fix a hole between the two upper chambers of her heart, but was because of the ongoing war with Russia, was unable to get care in Ukraine. And while this defect has been traditionally rectified through open heart surgery, Dr. Sean Levchuck, the chair of pediatric cardiology at St. Francis last week performed “a non-invasive procedure by use of a catheter and an umbrella-shaped device, called an Amplatzer ASD Occluder, to grab both sides of the hole and close it,” according to St. Francis.

The child recovered at the hospital thanks to generosity of the Nicholas Vizza Foundation, which supports Gift of Life children.

“It is always a special day when you can give an assist to someone who is struggling through tough times,” Levchuck said in a statement.

“It’s especially great given the circumstances that surround this little girl’s case,” Levchuck added. “She comes to St. Francis from a country that is in pieces and going through the worst of times. 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.”

Kateryna Shchepaniak, the child’s mother, knew about her daughter’s condition since she was just 11 days old. And after a Zoom call with Gift of Life and Levchuck, the family traveled from Ukraine to Long Island for the surgery surgery.

The  Shchepaniaks are but one of many families, who as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, are forced to flee their homes face challenges to access health care.

“I’m so grateful to St. Francis Hospital and Gift of Life,” Kateryna Shchepaniak said in a statement. “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.”

St. Francis Hospital has long partnered with Gift of Life Long Island to help children from all over the world who do not have access to lifesaving cardiac procedures. Physicians such as Levchuck donate their time and services to perform these minimally-invasive procedures that treat congenital disorders.

“St. Francis has always been proud of our partnership with Gift of Life and the expert cardiologists who correct heart defects through as many minimally invasive techniques as possible,” Dr. Charles Lucore, the hospital’s president, said in a statement.

“In light of current events, programs like these are more important than ever to ensure every child has access to the care they need,” he added.

“A little girl from a country facing great adversity will now be able to run and play with her friends, like other children do,” Catholic Health President and CEO Dr. Patrick O’Shaughnessy, said in a statement.

“We’re happy to offer our cardiovascular expertise in support of this amazing program. It’s just part of who we are as a faith-based health care system,” he added

For 47 years, the Global Network of Gift of Life has helped more than 43,000 children from 80 countries. Polina Shchepaniak’s surgery was the first Gift of Life sponsored procedure on Long Island since 2019 amid the pandemic.

“When we heard there was a child in need in Ukraine, with everything that’s going on with the war, we knew we had to help,” Gift of Life Long Island CEO Harry Miller said in a statement. “Our organization is committed to helping children like Polina and to see the smile on her face today means a lot to our team.”

After follow-up medical care from Levchuck, the Shchepaniaks plan to head to Poland in August, according to the hospital.


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