St. Francis doctors keep Gift of Life running through volunteer medical services

St. Francis doctors keep Gift of Life running through volunteer medical services
Dr. Sean Levchuck with Hamanda Maignan of Haiti, who came to Long Island through Gift of Life. (Photo courtesy of Sean Levchuck)

Every year, Dr. Sean Levchuck performs about 100 heart operations at St. Francis Hospital. About 15 involve patients who have been flown from their homes abroad just for his services.

Levchuck performs those operations voluntarily and has been doing so for 24 years as the principal doctor for Gift of Life, a Great Neck-based organization.

When he tells a child’s mother that the operation has succeeded, she melts, he said.

“They literally collapse in your arms,” said Levchuck who is the chairman of the department of pediatrics and pediatric cardiology at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn. “It’s great. It’s gratifying. It’s what this is all about.”

Gift of Life sends doctors abroad to screen children for heart disease, he said.

They come back with charts, which Levchuck reviews, and, for particular cases, ask if he’ll operate.

The organization manages the logistics – communicating with the family, flying the child and the family to Long Island and putting them up.

Then it is St. Francis’ turn. Levchuck reconfirms the child’s diagnosis, tells the family what to expect with the help of a translator and operates.

“They oftentimes have not had a significant amount of medical care prior to arriving in this country for this procedure, so we are often challenged with co-existing medical problems,” said Dr. Steven Schulman, an attending anesthesiologist and the associate medical director of St. Francis Hospital. “It is one of the most rewarding aspects of our practice because we are able to make such a tremendous difference in these patients’ lives.”

Gift of Life started in 1975. The year prior, Manhasset’s Rotary Club and a Rotary Club in Uganda arranged for a 5-year-old to be flown to Long Island for an open-heart procedure.

Since then, children have been flown in from everywhere from Greece to Honduras.

Levchuck began operating for the program at the beginning of his career. After a residency at NYU Winthrop Hospital and a fellowship at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia he joined St. Francis.

“The two doctors that had been doing [Gift of Life] were retired,” he said. “They needed somebody to step up.”

The program represents Long Island because of its innate goodness, he said.

“I think we realize how fortunate we are to live where we are,” Levchuck said. “When Long Islanders are given the opportunity to help, I think they will. I represent what I think is the spirit of Long Island.”

For the most recent patient, a child from Haiti, students at St. Anthony’s High School helped raise money for the travel expenses, including Levchuck’s son.

Gift of Life brings together people throughout the community who all just want to help out, and that’s what makes it special, Levchuck said.

“Everybody does it for the right reasons,” he said. “Nobody’s doing it because they get paid. Everybody’s doing it because you just want to give back.”

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