Bombs are exploding in the near distance, and what would be a sure sign to evacuate - is just another day in the operating room for world-renowned Pediatric Cardiac Surgeon Dr. William M. Novick, who remains laser focused as he performs life-saving treatments on children in war-torn countries around the world.
A Memphis native, Dr. Novick is the Founder of the non-profit Novick Cardiac Alliance, a team comprised of high-impact surgeons, doctors, nurses, and clinicians risking their lives to save children from death.
Battling bombs and bureaucracy in 30 countries,
Dr. Novick and his team of 22 doctors have operated on over 10,000 children on some of the most dangerous frontlines worldwide, including Ukraine, Libya, Bosnia, Columbia, Nigeria, Iran, and Iraq.
For his heroism, Dr. Novick is the recipient of four presidential medals – Belarus and Croatia, Nicaragua, and Ukraine. And was named "Physician of the Year" by the exclusive Patient Preferred Network.
Dr. Novick's passion is evident in the several lives he has saved, but it is his “medical foreign policy” that is essential in fostering care, country-to-country relationships, and communications in hostile scenarios.
Photos Courtesy of NCA Staff & Volunteers
So, what inspires this American doctor to risk his life by traveling to countries during tumultuous times? Preferred Health Magazine was honored to speak with the esteemed surgeon about his career, missions overseas, and his dedication to changing foreign perceptions of American doctors.
PHM: You have dedicated your life's work to saving the lives of children.
Can you recall what first interested you in Pediatric Cardiac Surgery?
Dr. William Novick: As a graduate student in Biochemistry, I had the opportunity to meet one of the world's most famous pediatric cardiac surgeons, Dr. John Kirklin of the University of Alabama. His research doctor was a former student of my research mentor, and we were working on a similar study. As a result, I had access to Dr. Kirklin's research lab and learned about congenital heart defects through conversations with one of the pioneers of congenital cardiac surgery. I decided to go to medical school and become a pediatric cardiac surgeon. My medical school classmates were surprised that, as a first-year student, I knew what I wanted to become.
PHM: In 2014, you started the Novick Cardiac Alliance (501)3c to get critical congenital cardiac treatment to children in countries with limited treatment options. Why was the Novick Cardiac Alliance so essential to assemble?
WN: In 1994, I founded the "International Children's Heart Foundation" (ICHF) and was the Medical Director until September 2014. The Board of Directors of the ICHF wanted to move in a different direction from our original purpose, so I resigned, as did all but one clinical individual, and we started Novick Cardiac Alliance (NCA) in October 2014. We wanted to be able to operate on children regardless of religion, ethnicity, race, or country in which the children were located. ICHF BOD wanted us to stop going to conflict zone countries, but we disagreed and started NCA. ICHF ceased to exist in 2020.
PHM: As a Pediatric Cardiac Surgeon, you and the Novick Cardiac Alliance team have performed surgery on over 10,000 children. Quite remarkable! What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
WN: There are two equally rewarding events that happen in this job.
First is immediate, and that is the look in the eyes of the parents when you come out of the operating room to tell them the operation went well and that their child is okay. The second reward takes a bit longer, and it assists in developing an independently operating pediatric cardiac program after years of training, education, and experience that we provide.
PHM: What is the one thing that gets you up every morning, ready to operate?
WN: The endless line of children in low and middle-income countries (LMIC) that need surgery. Let me be a bit more specific. We are in Nukus, Uzbekistan now, and we have operated on 43 children in 2 weeks and two days; we will most likely finish with 50-51
children operated on in our three weeks here. The waiting list as of today is 425, just in the province that Nukus is located in! The waiting line is endless; there are not enough centers in LMIC to take care of the waiting lists, and more are born daily. Remember,
1 in every 100 live births is the number born with congenital heart disease. And add in the children who develop rheumatic heart disease after an episode of strep throat, and all numbers almost double.
PHM: Training and educating local surgeons, nurses, and clinicians in these war-torn countries is critical to your mission. How has your "American Team" been received in these parts of the world?
WN: There are always skeptics, but by and large we are well received, especially by the local staff that is actually working with us. It is not unusual that there are those who try to make the program look bad because we are providing free heart surgery, and this takes money from the pockets of physicians who escort children out of the country for heart surgery.
Have you met any resistance? Not from those we are training, but others who see us as a problem for the adult heart surgery programs. We will occupy the operating rooms all day and fill the ICU with children; the adult teams do not like this.
PHM: Traveling abroad to war-torn countries is risky. Can you recall a time when you thought your job could not get done,
and what was the outcome?
WN: Yes, it can be risky, and we have worked in areas where bombs are falling or we can hear the sounds of war in the distance. I think Belgrade in March of 1999 when NATO bombed the former Yugoslavia because of the genocide the Serbs were carrying out in Kosovo. We arrived in Belgrade on March 14 and began operating the next day; on March 17, we were informed that two children with Transposition of the Great Arteries had been born the previous day and were being transferred to our hospital for surgery. The local team had never performed the operation these newborns needed, so we planned to operate on them the following Wednesday. However, on Friday afternoon, the US Embassy in Belgrade called the hospital and told me they would pick up the team at the hotel on Saturday morning as they had been told to evacuate the Embassy.
"As the explosions became more frequent and louder, I said to our team,
"Many of our countrymen will die tonight, but not this child on the operating table.
Once we are off bypass, you can all go home to your families".
Their response, "No, we will stay until this child is in the ICU!"
I told the Deputy Counselor that I was not leaving and would talk to the team to see who wanted to be evacuated to Budapest the next day. Six of the team wanted to stay and provide the operation these newborns needed, three picked evacuation. So, on Saturday morning, the Embassy van picked up three and departed for Budapest. Monday and Tuesday, we operated, and on Wednesday, we performed the operations on the newborns.
The first case went well, and we started the second around 5:30 p.m. All day, the DJs on the western-leaning rock and roll station we were listening to had mimicked fake air raid signals, and it was getting increasingly annoying. About 15 minutes after sundown, the air raid signals came again. We were on the bypass machine at one of the most critical parts of the operation. I told the Serbian Anesthesiologist to turn off the radio; he said, "Bill that is not the radio", the bombing was about to start. Seconds later, we heard what sounded like distant thunder, and we all knew the sky was clear at sundown. As the explosions became more frequent and louder, I said to our team, "Many of our countrymen will die tonight, but not this child on the operating table. Once we are off bypass, you can all go home to your families". The response, "No, we will stay until this child is in the ICU!"
We finished the operation and had the child in the ICU around 10:30. The bombing continued all night, some so close that the hospital shook. I met with the Hospital Director the next morning, and we made plans for the remaining team to be evacuated via Croatia. He got in touch with the Ministry of Interior of Yugoslavia, and I called my colleagues in Zagreb. We would leave the hotel at 7 a.m. Friday morning we headed to the Croatian border, where our colleagues would meet us. We arrived at the border, and the officer in charge came out to the car and thanked me for staying and operating through the bombing; he said it was on the news, and all of Serbia knew what we did, and we could come back any time.
We stopped at a roadside cafe in Croatia for lunch and as an anxiety breaker. There were TVs mounted, and at noon, a special announcement was made. My Croatian intensivist friend translated, "Daytime bombing had started in Yugoslavia," we got out just about 30 minutes before the daytime bombing started.
Twenty-one years later, I got an email from the mother of the child we operated on through the bombing. She thanked me for not abandoning her son, who had just celebrated his 21st birthday!
Three months later, I stopped in Belgrade on my way to Iraq, the father picked me up from the hotel -yes, the very same one we had stayed in before, and took me to his home in a village 60 kilometers from Belgrade. I met the 21-year-old version of baby boy Antonivic, Luka, and all his extended family. We spent the day reminiscing, eating, crying, and drinking. At the end of the day, they took me back to the Belgrade airport, and I flew out for my next adventure.
We were in Benghazi when the sectarian war started in 2014. Our May trip was interrupted by intense fighting between the sides, our hospital was in the No-Mans land, and mortar rockets were flying over the hospital. We stopped operating because we were told that we would need to be ready to evacuate with just 30 minutes' notice. The hospital administrator's sister was a General in the Libyan Army fighting the insurgents; they were negotiating a cease-fire along the road we needed to use to get out of town, and the local airport had been bombed and was not functioning. So, for four nights, we would go out on the balcony (our rooms were on the top floor of the hospital), pull up our chairs, get our drink preference, and watch the fireworks. The hospital was not hit until after our departure.
Dr. William Novick (Middle) visits with his patient Luca Antonivic (far left)and family in a town near Belgrade to celebrate the young man's 21st birthday - marking over two decades after receiving a life-saving operation performed by Novick and his team.
Photos Courtesy of NCA Staff & Volunteers
On June 1, the cease-fire was granted, and we rapidly exited the city to the next town with an airport. We stayed in a hotel in Beida (city with a functioning airport) that night and departed for Tripoli the following day. Our Turkish Airlines flight out of Tripoli was the last flight. Minutes after we took off, the airport was bombed.
PHM: You have traveled many times to Ukraine throughout their terrible war with Russia. What can you say about the conditions you have encountered, and what do you hope to see for these children and their families in the future?
WN: First, it is important for your readers to know that on my father's side of the family, I am 50/50, Russian/Ukrainian. But I am 100% Ukrainian at this time. We have helped build pediatric cardiac programs in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa. Now, we are only in L'viv, and it has mostly been spared significant damage/bombing in this war. We made our third trip to L'viv on March 13, 2022, yes just 17 days after the invasion.
Our previous trips were in November 2021 and January 2022. Since the first trip after the war started, we have been to L'viv six more times and will be there again in mid-October and early December.
We must give the families of Ukraine who have children with congenital heart disease a place where their children can be cared for, regardless of the Russian's illegal invasion and daily war crimes. Yes, I think there is future for the children of Ukraine with heart disease, and it is in their country after the invaders are driven entirely out. We will continue to go to and help the L'viv program, funding for 2024 is being obtained. We could certainly use the help with financial donations from your readers and medical supplies as well.
As you are reading this interview, you can bet that Dr. William Novick and his team are continuing their mission of performing life-saving pediatric heart surgeries around the world. The Novick Cardiac Alliance along with the several surgical teams across war-torn countries, who risk their lives to save others are far more than just the scrubs they wear, they are true heroes.
To learn more about Dr. William Novick and the Novick Cardiac Alliance;
and how you can help these extraordinary medical teams,
please visit https://cardiac-alliance.org/