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Students meet Kosovo boy they helped bring to U.S. for surgery

St. Anthony's High School students who helped raise $5,000 to help bring a 6-year-old from Kosovo to St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill for lifesaving heart surgery met the boy on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely)

St. Anthony’s High School students who assisted in raising $5,000 to help bring a 6-year-old from Kosovo to St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill for lifesaving heart surgery they witnessed up close met the beaming boy Wednesday.

Erblin Sllamniku played patty cake, gave out hugs, uttered “thank you” in English and glowed as he was presented with a soccer ball — his favorite sport.

“Great!” he declared through a translator when he was asked at a news conference at the hospital how he felt.

His father, Fadil Sllamniku, 38, said he was afraid his son was not going to survive, until the students helped arrange for him to come to America for the surgery last week.

“I was terrified and scared while I was in Kosovo, and scared that he would die,” the father said through a translator. “As soon as I came here, my fear disappeared.”

Erblin was born with patent ductus arteriosus, or PDA, a condition in which a fetal blood vessel does not close at birth and leaves a hole in the aorta. Symptoms of the congenital defect include respiratory problems and a heightened heart rate. Left untreated, PDA can lead to pulmonary hypertension and congestive heart failure.

Dr. Sean Levchuck, chairman of pediatric cardiology at St. Francis who performed the March 15 surgery, said the boy’s condition was life-threatening.

He had a hole in his heart the size of a straw, Levchuck said, and the boy’s lungs were working two to three times harder than they should be.

His father said the boy had little appetite, was not eating much and had low energy.

The 40-minute, minimally invasive procedure to plug the hole was successful, Levchuck said. “This little boy is going to have a great life,” he said.

“Just a week ago today, we were able to close the hole in his heart by using a tiny plug threaded to a catheter, inserted through a needle hole in his leg,” said Levchuck, who donated his services.

“It not only had a big impact on all of us, but for students from St. Anthony’s, who were able to witness the results of their heartfelt efforts firsthand,” Levchuck said.

The students, who hope to become doctors someday, are participating in St. Anthony’s new Medical Education Lab program, which has started a collaboration with St. Francis.

Five of them, clad in scrubs, were allowed inside the operating room during the surgery.

One student, Genesis Ovalle, 17, a senior from Central Islip, said: “This is truly an amazing experience. It’s wonderful to experience the gift of life. We’ve given Erblin a second chance at a normal life.”

Levchuck said, “We hope that by seeing these types of medical procedures firsthand, they will be inspired to pursue their dreams of becoming doctors.”

St. Anthony’s is in the midst of a creating a $10 million science center on its campus. It includes a $75,000 virtual-reality table that allows students to see the interior of the human body and “operate” on it.

The Student Council at the South Huntington school raised the money to bring Erblin to the United States through the Gift of Life, a humanitarian group that helps bring children here from around the world for lifesaving cardiac procedures.

The teenagers raised the funds through a “Dress Down Day,” when students could wear street clothes instead of their school uniforms if they donated $5 for charities, said Christina Buehler, assistant principal and director of communications.

Brother Gary Cregan, the school’s principal, said the color of Erblin’s cheeks showed how his life had changed in a week.

“It is pink, it is healthy and his eyes are saying he has a future,” Cregan said.

“At St. Anthony’s, we espouse the saying, ‘Capture the heart and the mind will follow,’ ” Cregan said. “How great is it that St. Francis Hospital, which is world-renowned for its excellent medical and nursing care and known as The Heart Center, is coming together with St. Anthony’s to create this wonderful facility and program for our future health care leaders and providers?”

He added, “We are truly blessed and grateful for this wonderful opportunity for our students.”

Other Catholic high schools on Long Island also are upgrading their science programs.))

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