Ireland is a small island with a generous heart

Adi Roche reports on how the generosity of Irish people is helping to save the lives of seriously ill children in Eastern Ukraine, including Baby Maxim, who will undergo surgery

Ireland is a small island with a generous heart

At just two-and-a-half months old, Maxim Phillipov doesn’t know it yet, but some day in the future someone, perhaps his mother Victoria or his father Sergey, will tell him that in the spring of 2015 a group of Irish people decided that he shouldn’t be allowed to die. That as civil war still threatened to tear his country apart, they raised the money and flew a team of cardiac surgeons to Eastern Ukraine to fight to save his life.

They had heard about Maxim after a desperate plea for help from his parents and from doctors at Kharkiv General Hospital; the hospital was, just before Christmas, being overwhelmed by half a million refugees from the nearby self-proclaimed pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic.

According to the UN, more than 1m people have been displaced because of the violent conflict in the breakaway region of Eastern Ukraine. They crowded the hospital’s already over- flowing wards and corridors.

Maxim was, on Christmas Day, in the opinion of Kharkiv Hospital’s senior cardiac surgeon, Dr Igor Polivenok, hanging onto life by a thread. Born in November, he was, like thousands of children in Ukraine, diagnosed with critical genetic heart defects.

Maxim Phillipov desperately needs major open heart surgery to survive. Irish people have donated €150,000 to fund a series of ‘flying  doctors’ missions to Ukraine to save Maxim’s life, and the lives of hundreds of other children who urgently need complex operations.

Within weeks, emergency surgery had to be carried out to ease life-threatening pressure on his cardio- vascular system. He made a good recovery but then contracted pneumonia. Now still in the hospital’s intensive care unit he desperately needs major open heart surgery to survive.

The operation will cost in the region of €1,000. Last week, we at Chernobyl Children International were able to tell Maxim’s parents, both workers at a nearby aircraft factory, that somewhere in the world there were people who cared enough for their son to want to give him the gift of life. That over Christmas, Irish people had donated €150,000 to fund a series of “flying doctors” missions to the region to save Maxim’s life and the lives of hundreds of other Ukrainian children who urgently need complex surgery — without which one in three of them will be dead by the age of six.

The team of volunteer international cardiac surgeons and clinical nurses, led by Dr William Novick, will fly to Kharkiv at the end of the month, bringing specialist equipment and medicine, and will work alongside Dr Igor Polivenok and his team. Maxim’s parents have been told he will be number one on the operating schedule because of the seriousness of his condition. Still struggling to recover from his initial operation and to overcome the effects of pneumonia, his parents pray every day he will be strong enough to undergo the surgery while the team is in Eastern Ukraine.

Dr Polivenok has already described the response to his video appeal to the people of Ireland as “a miracle”.

“It is astonishing how such a small island like Ireland can have such a generous heart; can make such an extraordinary effort to help our children.”

Maxim’s parents, Victoria and Sergey, have said they are filled with joy that the operation may be carried out. “We are desperately worried for our little boy, no parent should have to suffer this pain; we pray for the people who are going to make his operation possible and we hope so much, so deeply, that it will be a success.”

For us at Chernobyl Children International, the joy of being able to reach out to children like little Maxim — whose plight we only discovered a few weeks ago — and whose life we may be able to save and change forever is at the heart of what we do and is also at the very beating heart of Irish life and generosity and concern not just local, but global.

For many years, almost 30 now since the Chernobyl accident, thousands of Irish people have been involved in the ongoing effort to reach out to children and families affected by the disaster.

We have raised almost €100m to fund medical and humanitarian projects in Belarus, the country most affected by the nuclear accident, and in Ukraine and Western Russia.

Host families in Ireland have taken 24,700 children on rest and recuperation holidays; teams of doctors, nurses, dentists and construction workers have given generously of their time to look after children in orphanages and children’s mental asylums as well as building new world-class childcare centres in remote villages across Belarus.

And so it is extremely heartening to see that the latest Eurobarometer survey, shows clearly that Irish people are still among the most concerned about what happens in the world and want to reach out to people who are in need.

This survey has shown that Irish people are the third most likely, after respondents in Sweden and Cyprus to consider it “very important” to help people in developing countries. This EU study has found that seven out of ten Irish people surveyed believe tackling poverty abroad should be one of the main concerns of the EU.

We know from our own work in countries like Belarus and Ukraine that Irish people also consider helping children — who very often bear the brunt of suffering when economic and social crisis assail countries — as being one of the greatest priorities of our time.

Hans Zomer, director of Dóchas, has said the poll confirms “people in Ireland are hugely supportive of international cooperation to fight the biggest problems of our time”.

I agree wholeheartedly with him. The work of Irish people in some of the darker corners of the world continues to inspire; the generosity of Irish people even in times of great economic difficulty, defines us as one of the world’s genuinely caring nations.

We in Chernobyl Children International are proud to be associated with this global Irish family and in the coming weeks, we look forward to seeing Irish care and love in action once again as international surgeons begin the task of saving little Maxim ’s life in the theatres of Kharkiv General Hospital in strife-torn and troubled Eastern Ukraine.

Adi Roche is voluntary CEO of Chernobyl Children International

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