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Nancy Reagan brought children to LI for needed heart surgery


Bob Vizza on March 6, 2016, the day Nancy Reagan passed away, spoke about the time the then-first lady visited when he was the president and CEO of St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn. As part of her Gift of Life program, in 1983 Reagan flew two South Korean children who needed open heart surgery to the hospital for treatment. (Credit: News 12 Long Island) (Photo Credit: US NEWS OBIT-NANCYREAGAN 1 LA, Getty Images North America / Win McNamee)

Former first lady Nancy Reagan left a legacy on Long Island in helping two children get the heart surgery they needed at St. Francis Hospital.

Reagan, who died Sunday at age 94, in 1983 brought a boy and a girl from South Korea to the Roslyn hospital aboard Air Force One.

She met the children — Lee Kil Woo, then 4, and Ahn Ji Sook, then 7, while accompanying her husband, then-President Ronald Reagan, on a trip to South Korea. She soon learned they were in danger of dying without the medical procedures, hospital officials said Sunday.

Nancy Reagan arranged for the children to fly to the United States with her and the president on Air Force One through the Gift of Life Inc., the Manhasset-based organization that makes heart surgery possible for foreign children, the hospital said.

On Thanksgiving Day that year, Lee underwent three hours of surgery at St. Francis to patch a hole between the two lower chambers of his heart, according to Newsday reports at the time.

Ahn underwent a similar procedure.

“This makes my Thanksgiving wonderful and complete” Nancy Reagan told Newsday through a White House staffer, before requesting that St. Francis show the children a picture of her. “Give them a big hug and a kiss for me,” she said.

Five years later, Robert Vizza, then-president and chief executive of St. Francis, said he contacted the White House and invited Nancy Reagan back to Roslyn to name a hallway in her honor.

She agreed, but only if the two children were in attendance.

By then, Lee and Ahn, who were unrelated, had been adopted by a family in Arizona. They agreed to return to the hospital.

Vizza said in an interview Sunday that he sat in on the intimate, 30-minute meeting with the children and Nancy Reagan that took place in his office.

“She didn’t even let the security guards in the office,” Vizza said.

From her purse, the first lady pulled out two clear jelly bean jars with a White House seal and gave the children the candy, he recalled.

“They talked about school and their lives in America. It was a warm visit,” Vizza said, adding that Reagan “was very friendly, very open.” Vizza now runs the Nicholas Vizza Gift of Life Foundation for Pediatrics.

Sean Levchuck, director of pediatrics cardiology at St. Francis, first met the Lee and Ahn in 1996 as they followed up on their surgeries. He’s still in contact with Lee, who now goes by the name Brett Halverson and lives in California and participated in a Gift of Life reunion a few years ago.

“Both are in good health,” Levchuck said of the two former patients.

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