Kateryna Shchepaniak, and her eight-year old daughter Polina, both of...

Kateryna Shchepaniak, and her eight-year old daughter Polina, both of Ukraine, at  Kennedy Airport on Sunday after a nine-hour flight from Poland. Credit: Howard Simmons

Eight-year-old Polina Shchepaniak and her family were preparing for life-changing surgery in March to repair the girl's congenital heart defect. 

Russian bombs and missiles launched at Ukraine in February upended those plans.

Nearly five months after Vladmir Putin's invasion of Ukraine forced Polina, her mother and brother to flee Lviv, a city near the embattled country's western border with Poland, the little girl will soon have surgery at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, courtesy of Long Island nonprofits.

The procedure to repair the heart defect, diagnosed in Polina's first weeks of life, will be the culmination of months of uncertainty and a nine-hour flight from Poland that landed at Kennedy Airport on Sunday. 

With her mother at JFK, Polina said she just wants to “run, jump, ride a bike” without worrying about her heart.

"I want to do it," Polina said. "I ride a bike, but I don’t ride a bike very fast."

Her mother, Kateryna, said she's been more cautious.

“I say to her all the time be careful, Polina don’t run, Poliina don’t jump,” Kateryna Shchepaniak said.

But for the war, Polina would have had the surgery in Lviv.

Two days after Russia's Feb. 24 invasion, Polina with her mother and brother joined a line of refugees crossing into Poland, leaving behind her father.

“At that time I think about safety for my children and we go to Poland,” said Kateryna Shchepaniak, 36. 

Polina's surgery had been weeks away but suddenly it was as uncertain as the future of her country.

After two months in Krakow, they returned to Ukraine, but heart surgery had been postponed indefinitely.

Thousands of miles away, Long Island nonprofits were looking to help young heart patients in Ukraine — something the organizations had done around the world for decades.

After the invasion, Robert Raylman, chief executive of the Fresh Meadows-based Gift of Life International, a Rotary International affiliate, said he contacted Polina's cardiologist in Lviv, Dr. Dmytro Besh, whom he had known from previous charity efforts,

“Rotary Gift of Life sends huge amounts of surgical teams around the world, Ukraine and Russia included, and teaches how to do pediatric microsurgery on the heart,” Raylman said in an interview.

Raylman asked Besh if there were any pediatric patients from Ukraine in need of heart surgery. Polina was on the top of the list.

Polina was born with a hole in her heart between the upper chamber, known as an atrial septal defect. The condition, as described on the Mayo Clinic website, increases the amount of blood that flows through the lungs. Sometimes a hole can close on its own during infancy or childhood, but larger defects can damage the heart and lungs and require surgery to prevent problems.

“It’s a very dangerous condition,” Besh said in a phone interview Monday from Ukraine. “For a long time this problem, congenital heart disease, is asymptomatic.”

Over time, however, it can lead to high blood pressure and stroke, he said.

The surgical insertion of a patch in Polina's heart “will close this defect and afterwards she becomes a normal girl for her age,” he said. “But due to war we have some problem with blood delivery and with this equipment.”

Indeed, said Arnold Quaranta, vice chairman of the Gift of Life Long Island -- also a Rotary International affiliate -- because of the war, "there are no resources."

"They can’t get the medical supplies," Quaranta said as he waited for Polina and her mother to land at Kennedy. "That’s why we’re bringing her here.”

On Sunday night, Quaranta, Raylman and six others stood at the Kennedy arrival gate at Terminal 7, a Ukrainian flag draped over a barrier in front of them, waiting for Polina and Kateryna to get through customs.

Polina's surgery is scheduled for July 20 at St. Francis Hospital and will be performed by Dr. Sean Levchuk, who is of Ukrainian descent, according to the Gift of Life Long Island. Raylman said Levchuk doesn’t charge for the surgeries done for Gift of Life.

The mother and daughter are staying with a volunteer Ukrainian family in East Meadow.

Polina and Kateryna were all smiles when they walked into the airport arrivals section Sunday night.

“Very cool,” said Polina, who wore blue jeans and a white shirt that read “Forever Positive.”

The trip to the United States is a "dream," Kateryna Shchepaniak said. After finding out they were invited to the United States for Polina's surgery, she said, "we were shocked and happy, like a God [made a] surprise for us."

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