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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”