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Russian kids get lifesaving heart surgeries

Dr. Sean Levchuck sits with Alina Klimakhina, right,

Dr. Sean Levchuck sits with Alina Klimakhina, right, Mikhail Zimin and Lisa Curra- children he performed life-saving heart surgery at St. Francis Hospital. (December 18, 2009) Credit: Howard Schnapp

They might have spoken through a translator, but two Russian mothers had no problems Friday expressing gratitude and joy for the lifesaving heart surgeries performed this week on their children at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn.

Mikhail Zimin, 4, and Alina Klimakhina, 8 - both of whom arrived on Long Island on Thanksgiving weekend from the Ulyanovsk region of Russia - were born with holes in their hearts from the congenital condition called atrial septal defect. ASD can cause holes the size of nickels or quarters in the upper two chambers of the heart, said St. Francis' director of pediatric cardiology Dr. Sean Levchuck, who performed the surgeries.

Each child underwent a 30-minute operation Wednesday and returned that night to the Ronald McDonald House in New Hyde Park. The state-of-the-art, minimally invasive catheter-based procedure reduced the operating time from as much as seven hours and recovery time from as much as two weeks, Levchuck said.

Mikhail and Alina smiled and held hands with their mothers Friday morning - and that was before Santa arrived with gifts and candy canes.

"It's really a miracle," said Alina's mother, Larissa, "the best Christmas I could have."

Before the operation, Alina had trouble walking up stairs, her mother said; now she looks forward to participating in ice skating and gymnastics.

Mikhail's mother, Luba, added that her boy wants to study martial arts, "especially karate. It's his dad's dream for the boy and now he can do it." Mikhail smiled shyly and mustered enough courage to say "thank you" in English to the doctors.

Of the doctors, Alina said in Russian, "They are very kind people and help children like myself."

The children were brought here by the Russian Gift of Life and Gift of Life Inc., a humanitarian organization based in Great Neck. Michael Yurieff, Friday's translator and executive director of the Russian Gift of Life, said the children were selected from about 200 kids with medical issues.

"It was a great anxiety and stress because you didn't know what would happen. Now, it's just joy and happiness without limits," Larissa Klimakhina said.

"This is why I do what I do," said Levchuck, who has done more than 500 surgeries through Gift of Life. "I get personal satisfaction and get to do something for someone I don't know."

The children and their mothers, both of whom are physicians, look forward to returning home the week after Christmas having proven that love, joy and gratitude are part of a universal language.

"This is an incredible event in our lives," Luba Zimin said in Russian. Then she added in English: "Merry Christmas."


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