From Lviv to Long Island: how a 9-year-old Ukrainian girl was given a new chance at life

From Lviv to Long Island: how a 9-year-old Ukrainian girl was given a new chance at life
Nine-year-old Polina Schepaniak from Lviv, Ukraine, playing the piano inside the Plandome Country Club. She underwent a life-saving heart operation in July at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn. (Photo by Steven Keehner)

Eight-year-old Polina Shchepaniak was preparing for a heart operation in March to correct a congenital condition diagnosed during her first few weeks of life.

Then came Russia’s invasion of her homeland in Ukraine.

“All eight years were in fear that Polina has been sick,” said Kateryna Shchepaniak, Polina’s mother. “It’s hard. It can be like high temperatures, like stomach flu. Since she was little, it can be hard. Every time she was sick, we must give her antibiotics because of the heart. It was scary for us.”

Fortunately for Polina, now 9, Gift of Life, led by two Manhasset Rotary members, stepped in.

The Gift of Life arranged for Polina and her family to come to the United States and have surgery at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, where the organization started in 1975.

Since then, they have performed surgery on over 43,000 kids from 80 different countries thanks to its extensive global network. They also give equipment and training in countries that lack it so that local doctors can carry out the procedures on their own.

Polina was born with an atrial septal defect. It is a cardiac birth abnormality in which there is a hole in the septum, the wall between the upper chambers of the heart (atria).

Every year, 40,000 infants are born in the United States alone with a cardiac abnormality. Gift of Life International’s CEO Rob Raylman said if detected, an American newborn will undergo treatment within the first six months of their life.

Robbie Donno, the founder and president of Gift of Life, said that the well-being of a child is universal.

Although Russia’s invasion began on Ukraine’s eastern front, bombings continue to happen across the country. This included Lviv, on the western side of the country, near the Polish border, where the Schepaniak family was located.

“I always asked my husband if it will be something,” said Kateryna Schepaniak. “All people said no, no, it can’t be on the on this territory, like Donbas.”

Raylman contacted Dr. Dmytro Besh, Polina’s cardiologist, who he knew from prior charitable endeavors as soon as the invasion started. Polina was the first child on the list when he inquired about pediatric heart surgery patients from Ukraine.

Everything came together within a few weeks of getting the news. They traveled from Lviv to Kraków, Poland. Then, they flew the family to America, where Polina underwent her life-saving treatment in July.

“[It has] come very fast for us and we have such a big experience because it was not only surgery,” said Kateryna. “It was like to be in another world, another people.”

Raylman said that the process went beyond only transporting the family to America. He praised members of the Long Island Gift of Life for their efforts. He said it all came together perfectly.

“I got put in touch with the Kraków embassy. We get an expedited form to fill out. Katarina does that, and she’s on a train in like three days to go to Kraków,” he said. “Within a day, she gets the visas for her and Polina to come to the United States.”

Besides getting them here, they also needed a place to stay. Sophie Pompea, the executive director of the Russian Gift of Life, who found the host family, stressed the importance of this step.

“Finding the host family is very important to me. I think it’s very important, whatever country the children come from, to ‌find that host family, you can have great memories with similar backgrounds,” she said. “It’s very important, because a lot of times in an operation, the emotional part is very key.”

Donno said that Raylman and Pompea were “two Manhasset Rotary members whose fingerprints are on Polina’s heart forever.”

“I wish I could say that I had planned all of this. I didn’t,” he said. “It happened because people couldn’t accept a child dying before their time and did whatever it takes to make the impossible happen for them.”

When asked if she was feeling better now, Polina smiled, nodded her head and said “yes.”

“She’s very creative and she’s very funny. She likes to speak with different people. She likes to meet a lot of people,” Kateryna said on her daughter’s time in America. “And she’s great because she feels. Children feel a lot from one another. When someone’s bad and someone’s good, she feels that.”

Kateryna said that previously, life was difficult to enjoy in the wake of her daughter’s difficulties.

“At one moment, I think that my life will never be the same like before the war,” she said. “I feel guilty also, that I’m in a safe place and my friends, my family, they are in Ukraine in dangerous places. And because of that, I think that there can’t be happiness in my life.”

She said that the solace and happiness she and her family have found in America feels like a miracle. Even something as simple as a smile, thought or prayer, has stood out to the family.

“All people, everyone who we meet, say ‘We pray for you. We pray for Polina’ and I’m like my heart broke because I don’t expect that people can be so so kind, so good, you know?” Kateryna said. “I want to cry because I don’t expect what I’ve had here for all seven weeks.”

Before the family departs for Ukraine, Polina will have a follow-up checkup on Aug. 17. Doctors will ensure that her treatment went without a hitch.

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