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Memphis in Ukraine: Fearless surgeon takes pediatric medical team to war zone to help kids

Dr. William Novick visits a child he operated in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, in 2014. Novick usually takes his medical mission teams to Russia twice a year, but the Russians cancelled a trip planned for next month. “... They said they are having financial problems,” Novick said. “But nobody really wants to go. Blame Putin. More children will die because of his crimes.” (Courtesy Novick Global Alliance)
Dr. William Novick visits a child he operated in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, in 2014. Novick usually takes his medical mission teams to Russia twice a year, but the Russians cancelled a trip planned for next month. “… They said they are having financial problems,” Novick said. “But nobody really wants to go. Blame Putin. More children will die because of his crimes.” (Courtesy Novick Global Alliance)

Dr. William Novick, the intrepid Memphis pediatric heart surgeon, just completed his second medical mission this year to Ukraine. He plans to return in June. He doesn’t believe he has a choice.

“I know it’s crazy. I understand that. But these kids can’t wait for the war to end,” Novick said Monday by phone from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he will be for the next two weeks.

Novick, founder of the Memphis-based  opens in a new windowNovick Global Alliance, took a volunteer medical team to Ukraine in late January while Russian troops were massing on the border, and again earlier this month as Russian missiles flew.

Dr. William Novick (Courtesy of Novick Global Alliance)
Dr. William Novick (Courtesy of Novick Global Alliance)

Since 1994, Novick has traveled to dozens of medically underserved, and militarily precarious countries to repair life-threatening congenital heart defects in thousands of children.

Novick has performed surgeries in troubled areas of Iraq, China, Pakistan, and Haiti. He took medical teams to Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia during the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. His 1999 trip to Serbia was interrupted by NATO air strikes. He was in Ukraine in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. 

“I keep thinking I’m going to stop doing this, but people keep having kids with heart defects in places where they aren’t routinely repaired,” Novick said.

“Bill Novick will stop operating when his hands don’t work anymore,” said his wife, Elizabeth.

One of Novick’s first trips was to Ukraine, which holds a special place in his own heart. His paternal grandmother was born there. His paternal grandfather was born in Russia.

“I’ve always felt a special connection there,” said Novick, 68, who was born and raised in Alabama. “Now, it’s breaking my heart.”

Novick has made about five dozen trips to Ukraine since 1994. He helped launch pediatric surgical programs in four of its largest cities.

He took a team there last November, where they operated on 15 children. He planned to return this month, but when Russian troops began mobilizing in neighboring Belarus on Jan. 17, Novick knew Ukrainian kids couldn’t wait.

“We knew that if Putin invaded, we might not be able to get in until who knows when,” Novick said. “Those kids couldn’t wait for who-knows-when.”

Novick and his team arrived on Jan. 22 in Lviv, a city about the same size as Memphis, in western Ukraine, a nation about the same size as Texas.

Natalie Ramirez, a respiratory therapist from Miami, takes care of a Ukrainian baby in ICU. Dr. William Novick's team repaired heart defects in six children this month. (Courtesy of Novick Global Alliance)
Natalie Ramirez, a respiratory therapist from Miami, takes care of a Ukrainian baby in ICU. Dr. William Novick’s team repaired heart defects in six children this month. (Courtesy of Novick Global Alliance)

They operated on a dozen children before leaving Feb. 6.  opens in a new windowRussia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Explosions were reported that day in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa, the other three cities where Novick’s teams operate.

“I got a call that day from Lviv. They’ve got a newborn with a congenital heart defect and they can’t get him to Kyiv,” Novick said. “The next day they call back and say they have another. Four days later, another.”

The children’s hospital in Lviv asked Novick to send a surgeon to help, but Novick knew they needed an entire medical team.

“Even if they could find someone to handle the surgeries, they don’t have the trained staff to care for four or five critical newborns,” Novick said. “Those kids would die in the ICU.”

Novick began assembling a team of medical professionals he has worked with from around the world. They were planning to fly to Poland on Saturday, March 12, then take a bus to Lviv about 40 miles away.

On Wednesday, March 9, Russian aircraft  opens in a new windowbombed a children’s hospital in Mariupol, a port city in southeastern Ukraine. “Poof, all but two of our volunteers suddenly bowed out,” Novick said.

Novick posted an urgent message on his  opens in a new windowFacebook page: seeking doctors and nurses “fearless to fly” to Poland and bus into Lviv, Ukraine and operate. All expenses covered.

“Kids are dying not just from bombs, but critical neonatal heart defects,” he posted. “Let’s help these kids! Contact me directly.”

By Thursday, March 10, the post had been shared 37,000 times. Novick had received 600 emails and an additional 200 Facebook messages from medical professionals offering to help.

On Saturday, March 12, a new team of seven nurses, a surgeon, an anesthesiologist, a perfusionist, a respiratory therapist, and three other team members flew to Poland and boarded a bus for Lviv.


Dr. William Novick and his 14-member volunteer medical team were delayed at Ukraine's border with Poland, and eventually allowed to enter, minus a nurse from Belarus, a neighboring nation that was aiding Russia's invasion. (Courtesy Novick Global Alliance)
Dr. William Novick and his 14-member volunteer medical team were delayed at Ukraine’s border with Poland, and eventually allowed to enter, minus a nurse from Belarus, a neighboring nation that was aiding Russia’s invasion. (Courtesy Novick Global Alliance)

The bus was stopped at the Ukraine border. One of the team members, a nurse, had recently immigrated to Poland from Belarus, a neighboring country whose president has aided the Russian invasion.

Novick called a friend in the U.S. who had a contact in the Ukrainian government. Hours passed. Tensions rose. Border guards finally allowed the team to proceed, minus the Belarusian.

It was a harrowing experience for the team, not to mention Novick’s wife back in Memphis. “I was panicked when Bill was driving from Krakow to Lviv and it was at night,” Elizabeth Novick said. “But once he got to the hospital, I was fine. They hadn’t really been bombing the city. I just wanted him to get done and get out of there.”

Novick and his team arrived in Lviv at 4 a.m. Monday, March 14. Over the next five days, they operated on six children — two who were 9 days old, one who was 17 days old, a 4-month-old, a 6-month-old, and a toddler.

“Everything was fine ’til Thursday morning,” Novick said.

That’s when Russia  opens in a new windowlaunched missile strikes near the airport in Lviv, which has become a safe haven for Ukrainians fleeing other war-torn parts of the country.

“When the airport got bombed, that rattled everyone’s nerves,” Novick said. “Air-raid sirens were going off all the time, but things calmed down again on Friday.”

Novick left Saturday, March 19, bound for the Congo. He plans to have a medical team there for two weeks, then move on to Angola, then Lebanon.

The Memphis physician had been planning to take a team to Russia next month. He has been taking a team to that nation twice a year. Not this year.

“The Russians canceled the trip. They said they are having financial problems,” Novick said. “But nobody really wants to go. Blame Putin. More children will die because of his crimes.”

Watch  opens in a new windowMSNBC’s interview with Dr. Novick in Ukraine.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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