Pediatric surgeon mends hearts in war-torn areas

“You’ll want to clamp that,” Dr. William Novick coaches an Iraqi surgeon operating on a child’s open heart. “What’s the pressure like?” he asks an American nurse who traveled with him to Karbala, Iraq, as part of an international team.

Novick leads the Novick Cardiac Alliance, a roving surgical operation based out of Memphis, Tennessee, that has been fixing children’s hearts in some of the world’s most ravaged places since 2004. Novick, its founder, began doing solo missions in 1993.

Discussing his work in a telephone interview while overseeing the surgery in Iraq, Novick said he began his international career doing surgery on children in the war-torn Balkans. He also spent years operating on children exposed to Chernobyl’s radiation. More recently, he has worked in the Hezbollah-controlled region of Lebanon, among other places.

Five children standing close together, some carrying school papers (© AP Images)
Novick worked in areas of Ukraine where fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster damaged children’s cardiovascular health. (© AP Images)

Novick and his staff go to dangerous places others won’t. They’ve been to Yemen five times. This year, the Alliance surgical teams completed a series of trips to Benghazi, Libya, after a two-year hiatus due to political instability in the eastern part of the country.

The Alliance recently turned its attention to Iraq, where there are high rates of congenital heart defects. Every year, about 5,500 Iraqi children are born with potentially fatal congenital heart defects. Prior to 2010, due to a lack of medical resources, only 400 of these children would have received the life-saving surgeries they needed.

In 2010, Novick was invited to Iraq by Preemptive Love Coalition, an American-founded, Iraq-based humanitarian organization that had been sending Iraqi children to Israel for heart surgery since 2007.

According to Matthew Willingham, a member of Preemptive Love Coalition, the arrangement with Israel was unsustainable because it didn’t help train doctors in Iraqi communities.

Aerial view of devastated city in Iraq (© AP Images)
Novick is unable to work in Mosul, pictured here, but works with officials to place its sick children on a surgery waiting list. (© AP Images)

When searching for an alternative, Willingham asked himself, “Who’s crazy enough to come in during a war and train local doctors so that we’re investing in Iraqi medical infrastructure?”

Novick was the answer. “If I do all of the operations, they don’t get much experience,” Novick explains when describing why he seeks to build sustainable programs.

Most doctors just need help working on specific heart defects. Some need coaching on the intricacies of pediatric surgery, which is more challenging than operating on adults.

The Alliance holds that, especially in war situations, doctors must be motivated to be good caregivers for all children with heart disease, without exception. “It’s really hard in a place like Iraq, as divided as it is, to do good work with integrity and credibility unless you choose to work with everyone,” Willingham says.

Novick is helping to ensure that Iraqi doctors do just that. And he hopes that greater support from international and government partners can reduce waiting time for surgeries — and thus preventable deaths — there soon.