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Newtown Rotarians Make Personal Connections With Gift Of Life Recipients

For only the second time since the Rotary Club of Newtown has undertaken sponsorship of children in need of heart surgery, through the Newtown Initiative of the Rotary International Gift of Life Program, local members were able to meet face-to-face with children they are helping. On Monday, August 18, Newtown Rotary members Pat Caruso, Mike Toll, and Tom McKirdy greeted 13-year-old Arben Lajqi of Peja, Kosova, and 2-year-old Leona Hoti of Rahovec, Kosova.

The two children arrived in the United States July 28. Originally scheduled for heart surgery earlier this month at St Francis Hospital on Long Island, where they are staying with local Rotary members there, the date was delayed to August 20.

On Monday, Arben and Leona traveled by ferry to Bridgeport, where the local Rotary members, as well as Newtown businessman Nasar Behluli, met them.

 Mr Behluli, formerly of Kosova, served as interpreter for the Kosova residents. Accompanying Arben and Leona were Arben’s father Jusuf Lajqi, Leona’s mother Hikmete Ymeraj, managing director of the Long Island Rotary group hosting the children, Joe DeVincent, and Gift of Life board of director members George Solomon and Albana Krasmiqi, also a native of Kosova.

The children and adults spent the afternoon at The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, an experience that Arben said [through Mr Behluli] was a first for him, and very enjoyable. Kosova is a landlocked country, Mr DeVincent said, so being in the shore environment was a treat for the visitors.

At The Newtown Bee office, Leona showed few signs of the hole in her heart that threatens her life. On the go, she explored the front office from front to back, stopping to visit with staff in the universal language of cuteness. Piper and Rosé, two of the office dogs, were on the receiving end of Leona’s attempts to toss a tennis ball.

Arben sat quietly, his eyes traveling from face to face of the group gathered in the Bee lobby. Arben’s condition would allow him to live a fairly normal life through his teen years, Mr Solomon said, but without the surgery on August 20, he most likely would have a heart attack and die in his 20s.

Before a visit to The Newtown Bee, where former vice president of Rotary International Abraham Gordon and former district governor Robert Vossler met the group, a stop was made at the Ferris Farm Creamery, where everybody “left with smiles on their faces,” said Mr Caruso. The remainder of the day was to be spent visiting the center of Newtown and the NYA Sports & Fitness Center, Mr Caruso said, as well as joining Newtown Rotary members at the monthly meeting. By 9:30 pm, Mr DeVincent said, they would be back on the ferry to Long Island. Tuesday was planned to be a very quiet day, in preparation for the next day’s surgeries.

Since establishing the Newtown Initiative, the Rotarians have raised enough funds to cover the cost of heart surgery for 30 children, by the end of October, from around the world, said Mr Caruso.

It is not unusual, he said, for hospital, doctors, and nurses to donate the bulk of their services, vastly reducing the cost of the surgery. The cost varies, depending on the type of surgery required, Mr Caruso said, but the Rotary has paid $1,000 and up for individuals.

In February of this year, 3-year-old Genesis Fuentes of Belize City, Belize, captured the hearts of Newtown Rotary members when she came to New England for heart surgery at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. Newtown Rotary member Mike Toll and his wife, Monica, hosted Genesis and her aunt before and after the successful surgery for a congenital heart condition.

The Gift of Life International Rotary program began in 1975, with the partnering of the Rotary Club of Kampala, Uganda, with the Rotary Club of Manhasset, N.Y. Its mission, according to a Rotary International fact sheet, is to “promote world peace by providing lifesaving open-heart surgery to needy children throughout the world.” More than 16,000 children from 70 different countries have been helped through the Rotary Gift of Life program since then, with the greatest momentum being in the past decade. Gift of Life provides surgery now for more than 1,000 children a year worldwide.

Gift of Life is working to develop self-sustaining pediatric heart programs in Uganda, El Salvador, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic that will be able to provide lifesaving surgery to 200 to 300 more children every year, once in place. Rotarians hope to start a pediatric program in Kosova, said Mr DeVincent.

“Follow up is the most important part of the program,” Mr Solomon said. “It keeps us, as an organization, in touch with how a child [we have helped] is doing, and the child has a better chance of a better life,” he said. Arben, Leona, and their family members will return to Kosova a week after surgery, he said.

The programs and developing technology mean that 90 percent of the children born with congenital heart disease now survive. The use of a transcatheter procedure for many children’s surgeries represents an enormous success of the safest form of heart surgery, said Mr DeVincent. The sophisticated process is much safer than more invasive techniques used earlier, he said. Both Leona and Arben should be up and about within a day of their operations.

Rotary International takes great pride in the success of the Gift of Life program, as do the many local Rotary clubs that support challenges such as the Newtown Initiative, said Mr Gordon. “We can save children’s lives,” he said.

The Gift of Life International network currently includes more than 70 Gift of Life programs, such as that in Newtown, 82 affiliated hospitals, and hundreds of volunteer health care professionals and tens of likeminded nongovernmental organizations, according to a message earlier this year from Suzanne Freaney, president, to Gift of Life International stakeholders. Additional yearly development projects are planned for other countries.

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