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Uerda Zena and mom Barbara are all smiles while in the U.S. to repair the girl's heart defect Photo from Joe DeVincent

Simple but necessary medical procedures we receive in the United States are often something we take for granted, but they are miracles to many people around the globe.

Take, for instance, the case of 4-year-old Uerda Zena, a girl born in Kosovo with a heart defect. Rotary volunteers across Suffolk County and the North Shore recently brought her to this country through their Gift of Life program so she could receive a lifesaving heart operation. Uerda had a hole in her heart the size of a nickel, but the procedure to repair it was not available in her home country because the hospitals there do not have the resources to train their staff.

Uerda’s case is not an isolated one. Young children from developing and disadvantaged nations around the world, including in Eastern Europe, much of Africa and South America, do not have access in their home countries to medicine and surgical procedures they desperately need.

Several global organizations have made it their mission to provide procedures like the one performed on Uerda, but Americans tend to forget that those organizations are necessary at all. If an American child is born with a cleft lip or a detectable heart defect, it is fixed as soon as possible and without the child needing to trek hundreds of miles — or thousands, in the case of Uerda.

We should be grateful for all the lifesaving procedures we have at our fingertips. And maybe instead of spending some of our money on a discounted plasma screen television on Black Friday, we should donate to causes like Gift of Life.

Uerda Zena colors before her heart procedure last week. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt

A 4-year-old girl from Kosovo is recovering after a life-saving heart operation on Long Island, thanks to the work of local volunteers.

Mom Barbara Zena comforts Uerda as she recovers from her heart procedure. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt
Mom Barbara Zena comforts Uerda as she recovers from her heart procedure. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt

It took a village to support Uerda Zena. Rotary groups throughout Suffolk lent a hand to the girl and her mother, Barbara, through the Gift of Life program, which works to provide such stateside heart procedures to children from around the globe. Uerda’s Nov. 4 surgery to repair a hole in her heart the size of a nickel was a milestone effort that celebrated the Rotary program’s 40th anniversary.

The atrial septal defect closure performed on Uerda at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn will add 60 or more years to the little girl’s life, Port Jefferson Rotary member Debbie Engelhardt explained, but the surgery was not available in her home nation.

Engelhardt, who is also the director of the Comsewogue Public Library, said more than 19,000 children from dozens of countries have received life-saving surgeries since the Gift of Life program was born in Suffolk County four decades ago and expanded through Rotary International.

The medical team that took care of Uerda Zena, including Dr. Levchuck second from right, surrounds mom Barbara Zena. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt
The medical team that took care of Uerda Zena, including Dr. Levchuck second from right, surrounds mom Barbara Zena. Photo from Debbie Engelhardt

Rotary groups in the county are still going strong with Gift of Life, which is doubling up its efforts by providing doctors and medical staff in other countries with equipment and training to perform the heart procedures themselves.

“It’s a unique, renowned and respected Rotary-run program,” Engelhardt said.

Dr. Sean Levchuck, the pediatric cardiologist who performed the life-saving procedure on Uerda at St. Francis, described it as minimally invasive. To close the nickel-sized hole, he fed a catheter “the size of a coffee stirrer” into a vein in her leg and up to her heart, where the catheter deployed a device that, once placed in the hole, expanded to plug it. The cardiologist had to position the device properly while Uerda’s heart was still beating, mostly using ultrasound imaging to guide him.

Barbara Zena and daughter Uerda have fun at Chuck E. Cheese. Photo from Joe DeVincent
Barbara Zena and daughter Uerda have fun at Chuck E. Cheese. Photo from Joe DeVincent

The doctor said the procedure took between 45 minutes to an hour and required a team of nurses, an anesthesiologist and techs to assist with the imaging. The hospital donated the use of its facility and staff for the procedure.

Levchuck does about 15 of those procedures a year for Gift of Life, he said, with a fair number of the child recipients coming from Eastern European countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. He also sees kids from places like Haiti and Jamaica.

Just like in those other nations, the procedure to repair a hole in a child’s heart is not available in Kosovo, Levchuck said, because the hospitals don’t have the resources to train their staffs to do it. And the kids who are born with those defects are more prone to pneumonia or respiratory infections, which could also be difficult to treat in a developing nation.

“Problems in this country that are seemingly innocent take a whole new look” in places like Kosovo, the doctor said. But he is willing to help: “Keep ‘em coming. … It’s easy to donate time.”

In Uerda’s case, plenty of Long Islanders donated their time, with many people pitching in to make the girl’s medical procedure a reality. Sayville Rotarian Joe DeVincent wrote letters to get the girl a visa, and she and her mother are staying with a host family in Northport while here. DeVincent has also provided transportation to the Kosovan mother and daughter.

Uerda Zena and mom Barbara are all smiles while in the U.S. to repair the girl's heart defect Photo from Joe DeVincent
Uerda Zena and mom Barbara are all smiles while in the U.S. to repair the girl’s heart defect Photo from Joe DeVincent

The endeavor to save Uerda had an additional element of kids helping other kids — students at St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, one of whom is Levchuck’s son, raised funds to bring the girl to the United States from her home in the Kosovan capital, Pristina, where her mother works at a bakery and her father at a public works plant.

“They’re a fine group of students over there that championed a cause,” the doctor said about the St. Anthony’s kids. “When you see something like that, you really get a nice warm feeling about the future.”

Uerda will be staying stateside for a little while longer, and Rotarians are trying to show her a good time. She has already gone on a play date to Chuck E. Cheese and visited a children’s museum, DeVincent said, and this weekend she will go into New York City with her mother and some native Long Islanders to visit Times Square and Rockefeller Center.

“Uerda really enjoys being with her mother,” DeVincent said.

And she has more energy to do these things than before.

After a heart procedure, Uerda Zena is now healthier than ever. Photo from Joe DeVincent
After a heart procedure, Uerda Zena is now healthier than ever. Photo from Joe DeVincent

“Her heart’s working better, her circulation’s better,” the Rotarian said. “The kid generally feels better than she has in her whole life. So this is a very happy story.”

Uerda will also appear at a Taste of Smithtown, an event in St. James on Nov. 17, where there will be food from restaurants along the North Shore. The 10th annual event will run from 6 to 9 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz of Smithtown on Middle Country Road and will benefit the Gift of Life program, along with the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry and the Smithtown Children’s Foundation.

The plan is for the Zenas to head home on Nov. 22, to be reunited with Uerda’s father and her 18-month-old brother.

“Her mother is in touch with her family in Europe through her cell phone and … Uerda has spoken to her brother over the cell phone,” DeVincent said. “She’s actually very maternal toward her younger brother.”

It is a happy ending for both the Kosovo family and Suffolk County Rotarians.

“When you’re doing something like this with an adorable 4-year-old child, it brings you tremendous satisfaction,” DeVincent said. “This is the best way to spread happiness, certainly for these children and their parents but also for yourself. Nothing that I do or have done in my life has brought me as much joy.”

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Hugh Campbell in his plane, The Swoose. Photo from the veteran

One served in the Naval Air Force in the Pacific, a second on the ground in Europe and another in its skies, but all three put their lives on the line during World War II to protect their country. Several decades later, the Rotary Club of Port Jefferson honored the three village residents for their service at their meeting Tuesday for Veterans Day, to show them that their sacrifices would not be forgotten.

From left, Hugh Campbell, Fred Gumbus and Walter Baldelli a few years ago on an Honor Flight, in which veterans are brought on a free trip to Washington, D.C. Photo from Fred Gumbus
From left, Hugh Campbell, Fred Gumbus and Walter Baldelli a few years ago on an Honor Flight, in which veterans are brought on a free trip to Washington, D.C. Photo from Fred Gumbus

The three men, Walter Baldelli, Hugh Campbell and Fred Gumbus, are all still active in their community, as they are three of the longest-serving members of the Port Jefferson Fire Department.

Baldelli, 95, was a tech sergeant in the Army’s 29th Infantry Division. He recalled in a phone interview “the one that damn near got me”: He was standing guard in a city in Belgium and the Germans sent bombs over “every night so we couldn’t sleep.” When one came close one night, he ran for cover on one side of a church, and the bomb went off on the other side.

“I lost my hat, my coat went over my head; I dropped my rifle.”

When Baldelli walked around the building, “there was a mess of dead people.” He said that was the closest he came to being really hurt.

Fred Gumbus, bottom row, second from right, was a tail gunner in the Naval Air Force. Photo from the veteran
Fred Gumbus, bottom row, second from right, was a tail gunner in the Naval Air Force. Photo from the veteran

The tech sergeant also spent time during the war in Iceland, England, France — in Paris, he walked underneath the Eiffel Tower — and Germany. His last stop before returning stateside was Frankfurt.

Baldelli said, “It was quite an experience,” and when he finally arrived home one day at 3 am, he woke up his parents and “we started drinking wine till daybreak.”

Campbell also served in Europe, as a tech sergeant in the Army’s Ninth Air Force from 1942 to 1945. The 89-year-old former flight engineer said he remembers most of it like it was yesterday, and there was one point when he was going into battle every day.

“After a while, you begin to wonder, how many times can I do this, you know?” he said. There were “people shooting at you every darn day with everything they got.”

Hugh Campbell served in the Army’s Ninth Air Force. Photo from the veteran
Hugh Campbell served in the Army’s Ninth Air Force. Photo from the veteran

Campbell also shared that one day after a raid, so many men had been lost that he was sent out on a second raid in the afternoon. The commanding officer had said, “I hate to send you out again but we don’t have anyone else,” Campbell said.

He described the feeling of not knowing if he was alive or dead.

“Everybody you had breakfast with before you went wasn’t there, they’re gone.”

One interesting experience that Campbell had came after the war, when a longtime friend asked if he remembered any of his 44 missions against the Germans. Campbell told the story of a small city where a bridge went diagonally across the Rhine — which was unusual — and “they wanted to bomb and take the bridge out to cripple the German supply system.” He was about 19 years old at the time.

The friend replied that it was his village, that he had been there on the ground with his brother when it happened and saw the whole thing. The man recalled seeing big yellow triangles on the rudders of the bomber representing the insignia of Campbell’s group.

Campbell said his friend would not have known about the triangles unless he had, indeed, been there: “Here is a guy that was an enemy and now he and I are friends.”

Fred Gumbus was a tail gunner in the Naval Air Force. Photo from the veteran
Fred Gumbus was a tail gunner in the Naval Air Force. Photo from the veteran

Gumbus was an aviation ordnanceman in the Naval Air Force from 1943 to 1946, with Patrol Bomber Squadron VPB-118. The 89-year-old former tail gunner, who goes by “Pop” in the PJFD because he is the most senior Gumbus in the department, served on the Pacific front.

While returning from one mission, Gumbus said, he called the pilot from the tail to warn that there were five Japanese fighters following theirs and another American plane. Though Gumbus’ plane made it out of the skirmish, the Japanese had taken out one of their engines and another one was in flames. He said they put out the fire but were losing altitude, and had to get rid of any weight they could. He tossed out toolboxes, parachutes and the insides of the guns.

The pilot released a bomb bay tank, but it tipped and got caught, and was hanging partly out of the bottom of the plane. Gumbus said he had to get rid of it, because if the plane were to land like that, the gas tank would have scraped the ground and exploded.

“Here I am trying to kick this thing” out of the plane, he said, and he was hanging over the plane’s open bottom above the Sea of Japan without a rope or harness.

Eventually the tank was loosened and fell out — and the plane, though sputtering, landed safely on Okinawa.

When he found out the Rotary was planning to honor him, Gumbus said, he thought, “Well that’s wonderful … because lots of times you’re forgotten.”

A modest Campbell said about being honored for his service, “I guess I appreciate it and it never occurred to me that anyone would ever say anything about it.”