The Novick Cardiac Alliance is crossing borders to save children in need

If the fight against heart disease is a war, William Novick is a five-star general

More than 1.3 million children are born each year with a heart defect, according to “Birth prevalence of congenital heart disease worldwide: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” According to Dr. William Novick, many affected children in developing countries do not have access to the health care they need. It’s a fatal problem with few answers. But the pediatric cardiac care pioneer is not giving in.

Novick is still recovering from an unrelated surgery. But, he isn’t letting that stop him from making a difference.

“My leg is mostly healing well,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “One incision is a bit problematic, but I’m headed to Ukraine Saturday anyway.”

Novick and a crew of health care heroes are in war-torn Ukraine, at the time of this writing, saving lives. It’s all a part of the doctor’s Novick Cardiac Alliance.

Founded in 2014, the foundation is dedicated to helping children with heart disease in low and middle-income countries. Since 1991, the doctor has performed more than 10,000 heart surgeries across 34 countries. It’s been 31 years of saving lives.

If the fight against children suffering heart disease is a war, Novick is a five-star general.

“There’s a huge deficit in the world for children with heart defects in terms of them being covered adequately by even routine diagnostic services or interventional services or surgery,” Novick said. “I really felt like I could make a much bigger contribution to the world if I helped set up programs in these low middle income countries where there was a deficiency of services or, in some cases, a complete absence.”

He’s not just battling heart disease and health inequity with his own two hands. From Libya to what was once Yugoslavia to Ukraine, he’s entrenching in every country he visits.

“So, over the years, it sort of grew from just helping out in areas to a passion for really developing freestanding programs that we would commit to long enough to allow them to become independent and capable of functioning on their own,” he said. “I would say the programs that have gained independence from us over the years are now doing around 10,000 to 12,000 kids annually.”

The alliance’s efforts have been well documented in multiple award winning films. “Chernobyl Heart” earned best documentary short subject award at the 76th Academy Awards, and “This World: Bad Medicine” earned a Peabody Award in 2005. Now a new documentary, “Novick,” is being filmed, and the alliance’s work in Ukraine is taking center stage.

It may not solve health inequity overnight, he said, but it’s saving lives.

“When you’re talking about a million kids a year needing heart surgery, that doesn’t sound like very much,” he said. “We’ve shifted the goal post by one percentage point. It’s 10,000, 12,000 kids a year. And these are kids that otherwise, prior to our developing of these programs, would not have had a shot.”

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According to Novick, who is half Ukrainian and half Russian, the odds were stacked against them in the operating room during a previous visit to the country.

“We walked into a ridiculous situation actually in the intensive care unit on Monday evening,” Novick said. “There was a cardiac surgical team from Kyiv that had decided that they were going to get out of Kyiv right after the war started. And they came to Lviv and sort of shoehorned themselves into this hospital.

“Nobody was happy with it, but they did it anyway. And they did an operation on the Thursday before we arrived on Monday.... And they shouldn’t have done it. I mean, we had all kinds of experts on our team for that procedure and for the aftercare, et cetera.”

The team did not perform to the alliance founder’s standards.

“They wanted to show what they could do,” he said. “Well, they showed really well. They couldn’t get the baby off the bypass machine unless they transitioned the baby to the ECMO circuit. That’s a smaller cardiopulmonary bypass support machine. When the heart’s been damaged, or when you’ve had a really long operation and the baby’s not responding properly on the bigger bypass machine, you transition to this ECMO circuit.

“And that’s what we walked into — this baby on the ECMO circuit. They had not taken care of a baby on an ECMO circuit for probably over five years. And so they were not adequately perfusing the baby. They were not adequately ventilating the baby. And so Elizabeth and another individual that we had on that team, that was also an ECMO specialist, they really took over and tried to improve that baby’s situation. Elizabeth really focused on that child and did everything that she could do to try and pull that child through. But, unfortunately, the child was also grossly infected and ended up dying three days after our arrival from overwhelming infection.”

It was a trio of difficult days.

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Novick does not have a history of retreating during difficult situations, however. Experienced in providing health care in areas most would consider dangerous, the doctor fled no man’s land during one of the Benghazi civil wars, operated on a newborn baby as shells shook the hospital in Belgrade and much more.

“No matter where you are in the country, (there is nowhere) that you don’t get hit with air raid signals,” Novick said. “They were every day when we were there (Ukraine) in June, every single day. No rockets ever landed close to Lviv, but we got air raid signals every day, sometimes multiple times a day.”

While things remained safe during their time in Ukraine, things have certainly been intense during some of the Novick Cardiac Alliance’s missions. No one, however, has ever been injured while aiding the alliance overseas.

“Yes, it has been,” he said when asked if it has ever been unsafe for the alliance during their missions out of the country. “Although, you never know what safety really means. In 1999, we were in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in March, when NATO decided it was time to bomb Yugoslavia because of the supposed genocidal activities of the Serbians towards their own colleagues.

“We had been warned by the embassy to evacuate. We held a vote on the weekend, when the embassy was gonna evacuate, and three or four team members decided to evacuate with the embassy. But, nine of us stayed behind because there were some critical kids that needed to be operated on.”

It’s a mission Novick will never soon forget.

“On the Wednesday night, the bombing started. We were operating on a nine-day-old at the time. There were bombs dropping all around the hospital, shaking the building, rattling the glass, the whole bit. But we finished the operation and, in 2021, I went and visited this child, who’s now an adult celebrating his birthday.

“His mother had read about that night in an anniversary article that appeared in Sputnik Russian news agency. She got in touch with me and said, ‘you realize my son is alive because you didn’t leave him that night. You finished the operation.’”

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Novick is not performing these feats alone. He recruits a team of expert health care heroes for every mission.

“Fearless is a word that I did use actually in the solicitation of recruits,” he said. “The other word I used was intrepid.”

The doctor did reiterate that he never put his team in the direct path of immanent danger while they were in Ukraine. They were many kilometers away from the conflicts.

“Thursday morning, we woke up to rocket attacks that we could see because of the way the windows faced in the ICU,” Novick said. “We could see the explosions... three miles away from the hospital. You literally saw the big plume of smoke go up and then fire after that, and that rattled the windows a little bit, but not much. I mean, nothing like when we were in Belgrade where the windows were rattling consistently and violently. ... So that’s why I used the word fearless and intrepid for all of the volunteers that went on that trip.”

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The Novick Cardiac Alliance is fighting to put a dent in heart disease, but they need your help. As of the time of this writing, the organization is asking for donations to support Ukrainian children with heart disease. Interested donors can make a difference here.

The alliance is also in “desperate need” of volunteer PICU nurses for their upcoming journey to Basra, Iraq later this year. Interested nurses can contact jean.towne@cardiac-alliance.org to volunteer, just as Augusta University’s Novick Cardiac Alliance pro Sara Elizabeth Curry did. She is with Novick in Ukraine helping save lives as of the time of this writing.

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