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UTHSC Physicians Work to Provide Surgical Assistance in Ukraine

Dr. William Novick and his team spent a week in Ukraine operating on infants with cardiac issues soon after the war broke out.
William Novick, MD, center in front, a professor of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and his team spent a week in Ukraine soon after the war broke out operating on infants with cardiac issues. Dr. Novick leads medical teams to treat children with heart disease through his foundation, the Novick Cardiac Alliance. The team is shown here in Lviv in mid-March.

William Novick, MD, professor of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), has operated on children around the globe, as part of his mission to extend health care access to children in need wherever they are.

When the war broke out in Ukraine, even though he was on a surgical trip in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) at the time, he felt compelled to go to Ukraine to help children in the war zone who needed surgery.

The Paul Nemir, Jr. Professor of International Child Health at UTHSC and the founder of the Novick Cardiac Alliance, Dr. Novick arrived in Ukraine on Sunday, March 13, and performed surgeries in the city of Lviv, working through his foundation, until leaving on Saturday, March 19.

Dr. William Novick, a cardiothoracic surgeon, has operated on children across the globe, including infants in Ukraine.
Dr. William Novick

Dr. Novick has been leading medical teams to treat children with heart disease for more than 28 years. In 1993, he created the foundation now known as the Novick Cardiac Alliance, which is based in Memphis, to care for children with heart disease in underserved countries. He has recruited a team of clinical experts, including physicians, nurses, and other specialists in pediatric cardiac care, to make the trips with him as part of the work of the alliance.

“We began our program in Ukraine in 1994, when there was only one cardiac center in the country,” Dr. Novick said. “Since then, we have helped establish programs in Kharkiv and Odessa. We were asked in 2021 to help develop a program in western Ukraine in Lviv. Our initial trip was in November 2021, with plans to return in March, June, September, and December 2022. However, when the Russian build-up became more significant over December, I suggested we move our March trip to late January through early February.”

Just two weeks after leaving Ukraine in early February, he received a call from a surgeon he had been training there. First, there was one newborn who needed an operation, and then two more with complex issues. The war started on February 24, when the fourth child in need of surgical attention was born. “He called me again on the 25th asking if we could return to operate on these children,” Dr. Novick said. “I heard the desperation in his voice and understood we needed to return, or these children would probably die within a month. We recruited a team quickly and departed for Krakow, Poland.” The team that ended up in Lviv came from multiple centers in Canada and the United States, he said.

A 10-hour bus ride brought the group to Lviv, where at 4 a.m., they unpacked the bus and settled into an empty ward of the pediatric hospital. Later that day, they operated on the first child. Tuesday through Thursday, they operated on one child per day, and on Friday, two, he said.

All the infants did well following the surgery.
Dr. Novick said all the infants operated on by the team responded well to the surgery, despite the intermittent presence of air raid sirens.

“All the children did well,” Dr. Novick said. “We had one scary morning, Thursday, when the Russians sent missiles into the local airport. However, every day was filled with air raid sirens.” The team left on Saturday just after noon and arrived in Krakow, Poland, five hours later, after being extracted by a paramilitary group. On Sunday, Dr. Novick flew to Lubumbashi, DRC, to begin another surgical program. From there, he left for Angola on Tuesday, April 5, and then travels to Lebanon, according to information from his foundation.

Dr. Novick is a leader in the UTHSC Center for Multicultural and Global Health. Its mission is to cultivate and leverage relationships with institutions locally, nationally, and globally to expand student, resident, and faculty access to multicultural health care delivery, address global health challenges, and train the next generation of global health leaders.

The Center for Multicultural and Global Health grew from another global outreach organization at UTHSC, the Global Surgery Institute (GSI). Founded in 2018 in the College of Medicine, the GSI was designed to anchor and support surgical mission work that was already being done across specialties at UTHSC. Dr. Novick is among the founders of this group, which has done surgical outreach with faculty, residents, and students providing health care in Honduras, the Philippines, Tanzania, Japan, Iraq, Zambia, and elsewhere.

UTHSC Global Outreach Influences Additional Aid Efforts to Ukraine

While Dr. Novick’s work is through his foundation, another outreach effort by a UTHSC physician also stands to aid health care in Ukraine.

Nia Zalamea, MD, FACS, assistant professor of general surgery, director of the UTHSC Global Surgery Institute, and associate director of the UTHSC Center for Multicultural and Global Health, has done medical mission work annually in the Philippines since 1999 with her family foundation, the Memphis Mission of Mercy, a nonprofit to provide health care in her parents’ home country of the Philippines. Dr. Zalamea and this organization are making plans to send hospital supplies, surgical instruments, blankets, stretchers, and other equipment to surgeon partners in Ukraine.

UTHSC Assistant Professor of General Surgery Nia Zalamea, MD, center, is working to send a major donation of hospital and surgical supplies to Ukraine. Dr. Zalamea, associate director of the UTHSC Center for Multicultural and Global Health, is a leader in a local foundation doing surgical mission work in the Philippines.

The Memphis Mission of Mercy has for years been collecting medical supplies and equipment for the hospital it plans to build in the Philippines. The supplies are stored in a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in South Memphis, space donated by Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, she said.

Dr. Zalamea said the foundation board voted recently to send the supplies to Ukraine, to help with immediate life-saving needs. “We had a meeting, and with two cargo planes available, we decided we have to give everything, except for the operating tables (which are too big to transport and not yet needed), because they don’t have anything.” The shipment would include 100-plus pallets or 18 tons of supplies, she said.

“We have the supplies and COVID has delayed building the hospital,” Dr. Zalamea said. “It’s really hard to say, ‘we are holding on to this for a hospital that’s not yet built.’ “

The planes would leave from North Carolina and land in Romania to get the supplies to Vorokhta, Ukraine. Memphis Mission of Mercy is working through the UN Foundation and Hope2Ukraine, a collaborative of charitable organizations with partners providing relief. Logistics of the shipment, which would carry more than $100,000 in shipping costs, are still being ironed out. Meanwhile, the mission also sent supplies via 901 Stands with Ukraine. That shipment left Tuesday via FedEx, Dr. Zalamea said.

Dr. Zalamea said, “One of our board members reflected, ‘It’s funny, we have been spending the last 10 years preparing for a particular moment in time when we might be able to fill a mission hospital with all of these supplies, and that day perhaps is to come. But perhaps the Lord has actually been preparing for this moment instead, with this need before us, and we happen to have an answer to that need.’ ”