“When you want your child to be healthy, you can do anything,” says Oksana Berezinska. But she and her family faced more hurdles than anyone ever expected to make sure that 6-year-old Zakhar received the best care possible for his colorectal condition called anorectal malformation. Beyond financial or logistical hurdles, Oksana and her family had to overcome a Russian invasion and war.
In 2021, Zakhar’s Ukrainian doctor recommended the family talk to the Pediatric Colorectal and Pelvic Reconstruction team at Children’s National Hospital in the United States about the next steps for Zakhar’s care. After consulting with the team here in the U.S., they decided that Zakhar needed a complex surgery performed by Marc Levitt, M.D. and that the family would need to travel to Washington, D.C., for it. Oksana coordinated with the colorectal team, raised money and collaborated with the hospital’s Global Services office to secure the paperwork to travel abroad. All was on schedule.
But before they could travel, Russia invaded Ukraine. In the face of war, Zakhar’s care plan had to change. The family left Ukraine and fled to Poland, in the hopes of traveling more easily to the U.S. from there. But going to Poland was like starting all over.
“We started to think we wouldn’t be able to make it here,” Oksana says. But she didn’t give up. Global Services helped them apply for new travel visas multiple times after their requests were denied. Sadly, Zakhar’s dad was forced to stay behind in Poland to make the trip possible. Oksana and Zakhar traveled together on their own to the U.S. — an unfamiliar country where few people spoke Ukrainian or even Russian.
As soon as they arrived in Washington, Children’s National was waiting to help. They met Leila Joehar, their Global Services liaison, who spent hours with the family and spoke to them in Russian, a more comfortable language for Oksana. Leila also made sure that medical interpretation happened in Ukrainian, the family’s preferred language.
Dr. Levitt and the team in the Colorectal division also wanted Oksana and Zakhar to feel more at home. The family was introduced to Elizaveta Bokova, M.D., a Russian surgical fellow on Dr. Levitt’s team who is training in the U.S. She spoke directly to the family in Russian about what to expect. “It was incredible to have them here with us,” says Dr. Levitt. “All the political drama and logistical challenges that occurred beforehand were meaningless once we brought everyone together to care for this family. It was very emotional for the whole team.”
All went well with Zakhar’s pre-surgical tests and procedures, and on his surgery day, too. During recovery, Dr. Levitt introduced them to Valentyna Tack, D.O., a Children’s National neonatal doctor originally from Ukraine, who spent time with Oksana and brought Zakhar a gift to help him remember his U.S. visit.
Less than a week after his final surgery, Zakhar was feeling well enough to be discharged to the family’s nearby hotel, where they stayed until they were cleared to go home. Then, they were able to reunite with Zakhar’s dad in Poland. Oksana is working on finding the right follow up care for Zakhar in Poland. Leila and the Colorectal team in the U.S. stay in close contact, too. Recovery continues on a good track and the family hopes it will soon be safe enough to travel to back to Ukraine and see the family who remained behind.
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