Before the operations, the smiles and news cameras, the children had sickness and pain: an ache in Tatiana Zhabina's heart, pneumonia that clogged Liza Inyutina's little chest. Mikhail Nikonov's pulse raced if he exerted himself.
The three are from a provincial steel town in western Russia, born with congenital heart defects that could have killed them. But Gift of Life, a project sponsored in part by Rotary clubs in Nassau, Queens and Brooklyn, diagnosed the defects and paid for the children's travel to Long Island earlier this month. Then, Wednesday at St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill, Dr. Sean Levchuck cured them.
What he did sounds at once miraculous and matter-of-fact: He found the holes in their hearts that allowed oxygen-rich blood to dangerously mix with oxygen-poor blood and plugged them. "We stuck a catheter up through a vein in the groin," Levchuck said at a news conference Thursday, describing the procedure he performed on the two girls. "A patch was introduced through the vein. Within six months, [tissue] is going to grow over the patch." He did something similar for Nikonov, 16, inserting a plug instead of a patch. Each procedure took about an hour, and when the children walked out to meet reporters in the hospital's lobby Thursday morning, they looked healthy, if bewildered by all the attention.
Nikonov said he'd been a little scared before the operation, but steeled himself for it by listening to a Russian rap group named Grot before he went into the operating room. Tatiana Zhabina, 12, said she'd been nervous to fly and had no idea of what to expect from America outside of what she'd gleaned from a dubbed version of the movie "Back to the Future."
Liza, 3, said nothing, engrossed by a miniature handbag somebody had given her.
Mikhail's father, Vladimir Nikonov, a sales manager, said he'd been "stunned" by the size of the hole in his son's heart, and what Levchuck had done for his son. "He saved his life," he said.
Doctors who examined Mikhail were amazed by what they found. He was a teenager with the heart of a 70-year-old man.
Liza's mother, Tatiana Inyutina, a nurse, told the crowd gathered in the hospital lobby that Levchuk and his staff gave her gift of the holiday season.
Liza still kept her to herself. But a few days ago, when Michael Yurieff, Russian Gift of Life's executive director, took the families for a driving tour of Manhattan, she saw the glittering lights of the skyscrapers for the first time and said a word in Russian that means "pretty."