Sara Elizabeth Curry, an Augusta University Health nurse, recently returned from a trip out of the country. The Douglas native didn’t fly overseas to take a vacation, though. She was in Ukraine saving lives.
“I just wanted to try to help in some way,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And I started looking for ways that I could go.”
To help the war-torn country, Curry teamed up with the Novick Cardiac Alliance — a volunteer organization dedicated to “improving the skills, knowledge, technology, and experience of local health-care providers in regions of the world without access to quality Pediatric Cardiac Care.”
As a nurse with three decades of experience under her belt, aiding patients and saving lives is nothing new to Curry.
“I’ve been with Augusta University since ‘91 as a student and ‘92 as a nurse,” she said. “I knew as a kid that’s what I wanted to do, to be a nurse. I knew, even in high school, that I wanted to be a neonatal ICU nurse and to do neonatal transport.”
From looking at her Facebook wall of countless charitable donations to her time in the nursing field to her willingness to put herself in harm’s way overseas, she’s a health care hero making a difference. It’s a passion that goes back many years.
Curry isn’t looking for attention or praise, however. She said she wants to inspire others to make a difference.
“I read an article in the Jacksonville newspaper when I was in high school about neonatal transport,” she said. “And I said, ‘That’s what I wanna do.’ Hey, maybe this article will help somebody else see the benefit in it.”
Novick Cardiac Alliance has performed more than 10,000 heart surgeries across 34 countries throughout the span of 31 years. Most recently, the organization returned to Ukraine, and Curry volunteered to join them.
“I was more scared about going in there and operating as a pediatric ICU nurse, since I’m more neonatal,” Curry said when asked if she was afraid while crossing the border into Ukraine. “And I even went into work one day when my friend, who works with the cardiothoracic surgeon, knew they were getting a patient. So I went in there just to observe and kind of watch everything that would need to be done.
“I said, ‘I think I can do this.’ So I told everybody, ‘Hey, this isn’t exactly my strongest suit, but I think I know enough that I can be useful.’ The part that scared me was that we were supposed to be teaching the Ukrainian teams as experts in the field and teaching them how to take care of them.”
For Curry, it was time to study up. When they received a patient on ECMO, a heart-lung machine, everything changed.
“So I was a little bit worried, but I had bought some resources to read and study before I went,” she said. “And then we get there and the first thing we see is that they have a patient on ECMO, a baby on ECMO. Wow, I know this part. I can help with this part. So that’s what I was tasked with doing the first couple of days, was helping with the ECMO patient.”
It was all hands on deck to help the child.
“Everybody kind of jumped in and reviewed his labs and settings and everything,” she said. “And there was me and another guy that did ECMO, so we jumped in and looked over all the ECMO stuff. The two pediatric ICU doctors reviewed everything and came up with the plan that we were gonna do.
“That was day one. And then, the second day, they started doing operations. Because of the limits on supplies, I think they only had one OR (operating room) set. So they could only pretty much do one surgery a day, because then you had to wait for all the instruments to be cleaned and sterilized before you could do another one. We would wait and get the patient back. We had divided the nurses up into a day shift and a night shift. And then we switched that up later so that everybody got to experience both parks, but we would get the patients back and stabilize ‘em.”
The ECMO baby didn’t make it, and the team took it hard., Curry said. But, thanks to them, the family was able to say their goodbyes before the baby died.
The team did not have long to mourn before duty called them into the OR once more.
“We ended up sending two patients to Germany,” she said. “One of those patients is doing well now, waiting for another operation, and one just passed away last week.”
The patients who died suffered life-ending infections. “Both of the ones that passed away had overwhelming sepsis,” she said.
“It was hard for Elizabeth to take that because she had invested a lot emotionally and professionally in that child,” Dr. William Novick, founder of the Novick Cardiac Alliance, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was tough. It was tough to lose that kid, even though we had not done the operation or put the child on the pump. But, we had tried to save the kid because of the mismanagement of this other team.”
The struggle did not end there. Getting the family access to their child before the baby died was an uphill battle for the alliance.
“The surgeon that had done the operation had not let the parents see the kid afterward, which was another thing that was driving us nuts,” he said. “And so when it became blatantly obvious to us that she was not gonna survive, we basically broke those rules and said, ‘No, the parents are coming to see this child before this child dies.’”
Curry said she plans to return to Ukraine in September to help out once again.
“That’s what I hope, to try to go back and focus on with them, to try to help in some ways,” she said. “Some of their equipment is ancient. Some of their supplies are expired. Their epinephrine was expired by 10 years. We pulled out some steroid gloves that were like 20 years old.
“I wanted some sterile gloves for a procedure that they don’t use sterile gloves for because they don’t have enough. So I wanna try to take some supplies back and work with them on things they can do to try to prevent these infections that killed these two children.”
Fighting health inequity is only half the battle; the other half is the actual war. From fleeing no man’s land during a civil war in Benghazi, Libya, to operating on a newborn baby as shells shook the hospital in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, saving lives is risky business for the Novick Cardiac Alliance.
While Curry wouldn’t call herself fearless in the face of air raid sirens and the impending threat of whirring missiles, her actions speak much louder than her humble words. They exemplify a selfless bravery.
“I wouldn’t go exactly fearless, but I wasn’t that worried about the bombing and the air raid sirens and that stuff that would go on in the background,” Curry said. “It’s kind of my thought that if I’m meant to go, I’m meant to go — whether I’m in Ukraine or I’m here. That’s kind of the way I look at things.”
One morning during the alliance’s previous trip to Ukraine, before Curry’s time in the country, the alliance volunteers were awakened by rocket attacks visible through the hospital windows.
When the air sirens roared one night during her stay in Ukraine, Curry said she just went back to sleep. After all, she had people to save the next day.
“Several of them were going to the hospital where they had a bomb shelter the first night or two,” Curry said. “And I just got up and closed the window so I could go back to sleep.
“I had an app that I watched that showed where there were a lot of air raid sirens, but there was rarely any bombs that hit there. So it didn’t concern me as much as some. And by the end of the week, when we took our tour, the tour guide asked us, if there was an air raid siren, did we want her to find us a bomb shelter. And everybody said, no.
“So, by the end of the week, everybody was feeling the same way.”
In September, Curry is going back to Ukraine with the alliance, and she needs help.
“I keep trying to get people to focus more on the Novick Cardiac Alliance and the mission that they have,” she said. “That group only works by donations, so (I’m) trying to get more focus on that rather than me. I didn’t do anything that none of the rest of the group didn’t do.”
For any nurses interested, Curry said it has been incredibly satisfying working with the alliance.
“This group is a great group to travel with,” she said. “We still communicate, all of us. We are still communicating with each other and texting and messaging each other. So you meet new friends. It is just a great organization. If you don’t feel comfortable going with this organization, look for some other way that you could help.”
To learn more about the Novick Cardiac Alliance visit cardiac-alliance.org. To donate to the alliance, visit here. To get in touch with the alliance to volunteer, visit cardiac-alliance.org/contact/ or the alliance’s Facebook page.
For more content like this, sign up for the Pulse newsletter here.