Giving heartfelt thanks

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Giving heartfelt thanks

In their hospital gowns, the three Russian children are extremely shy and timid. Most of the time they cast their eyes downward, especially Olga Kovalishina,10, who twitches her hands, edges toward the corner of the room and now and then nods when asked a question.

Dima Hahaev, 7, never leaves his mother's side and stares at the reporter, the boy's blue eyes big as saucers.

Sasha Evtushenko,10, sits with his legs crossed next to the children's Russian doctor and interpreter, Natalia Kaganskaya.

Part of their shyness is surely because they are in a new country, a strange environment. The other part is because they are simply worn out from being secluded in a hospital room for more than two weeks.

For Sasha, Olga and Dima, this is their first time ever to visit a place outside their homeland of Russia. To prevent them from getting infections, doctors have had the three confined to the same room on the third floor of Sejong Hospital in Bucheon, where they had heart surgery for a serious birth defect.

On Nov. 19 at 6 p.m., the trio arrived at Incheon International Airport. All three were suffering from atrioventricular septal defect, commonly referred to as AVSD. In lay terms, the children had a "hole" in the wall between the two lower chambers of their hearts. The wall is there to prevent oxygen-depleted blood from mixing with oxygen rich blood after it returns from the lungs. AVSD patients usually suffer from breathing difficulties and generally face a short life expectancy.

Dima went through surgery on Nov. 25 and Sasha the next day.

Olga was lucky. When doctors in Korea checked her, they found the hole in her heart was not big enough to warrant surgery.

In late June, Lee Sang-dae, chairman of the Child Protection Fund, a Korean nonprofit social welfare organization that provides financial support for children suffering from heart disease or abuse, and Kim Sang-taek, a Bucheon city councilman, visited the Khabarovsk Municipal Children's Hospital and selected three children with severe cardiac problems.

Khabarovsk is the second largest Russian city east of Lake Baikal and lies 6,147 kilometers east of Moscow. It's the last major stop on the Siberian railroad before Vladivostok and has a population of 600,000.

According to the Child Protection Fund, 320 children in Khabarovsk suffer from congenital heart problems and an estimated 80 children are in need of surgery annually. However, outdated medical facilities and a lack of doctors prevent the Russian city from treating all of its young heart patients.

The reason for the high number of Khabarovsk children with heart problems is not clear, according to an official at Sejong Hospital. Nor do medical experts know what causes AVSD.

For Sasha, Dima and Olga, the timing of their surgery was very important, said Song Young, a nurse at the Sejong Hospital. Ms. Song said if the children's surgery was delayed, the consequences will later be critical. If a hole in the heart is left untreated, a paitient suffers continuous leakage and, eventually, heart failure.

The Child Protection Fund and the Bucheon city government picked the three children based on their families' financial status.

All three children's parents could not afford the expensive medical bills, which came to nearly 10 million won ($8,200) per patient. The medical bills will be split among the Child Protection Fund, the Seoul office of Allianz Life Insurance Co., a German firm, the Bucheon municipal government and Sejong Hospital.

An official at the Child Protection Fund said three more Russian children will be brought to Korea for operations next year.

Olga Hahaev, Dima's mother, said she was grateful for all the help that has been bestowed on her only child. "What more can I say?" Mrs. Hahaeva said with a smile.

The Hahaeva family learned of Dima's AVSD soon after he was born.

"No one in the family knew what to do," said Mrs. Hahaeva.

Dima's mother now says the family thinks of Dima's surgery as a blessing.

His surgery behind him, Dima now has but one hope and that is to go back to Russia, which would most likely be in later this week. Dima thinks the trip to Seoul was just "So-so."

All Dima really wants to do is go back to Khabarovsk and polish his collection of Russian military medals.

Dr. Kaganskaya, a cardiac surgeon, said that last week Sasha, after witnessing a stray dog passing by the hospital, sighed and remarked, "Oh happy dog."

With his newly repaired heart, Sasha has only one thing in mind and that is to set free all of the bottled up energies within himself -- to kick a soccer ball especially -- a physical activity that he has not yet done in his life because of his heart defect.

Doctors say they expect to release the three later this week. These days the three have been spending most of their time playing chess and cards, or watching their all-time favorite cartoon, Pokemon.

Sasha is counting his fingers the day he will be discharged. Dr. Kaganskaya said the moment the nurses removed the last tube from his arm the boy began to roam floors of the hospital in jubilation.

Sasha often plays with the soccer ball he was given by the family of a patient in an adjoining room. In fact, he's the only patient in Sejong Hospital permitted to kick the ball around the halls. Sasha must play soccer alone, however, since Dima, the only boy patient in Room 306, stays close to his mother. Indeed, Dima will only brush his teeth when his mother stands beside him. Dima doesn't need his mother to play chess, though. He is an excellent player, the best of the three.

And of Olga? She says little and smiles a lot, perhaps because she did not have to endure the surgery.

All three may seem shy, yet Dr. Kaganskaya said that the children act like any others when there are no adults around. They often play by themselves, but that has never caused any problems for other patients or the nurse.

"They are good children," says Dr. Kaganskaya.

What do they like about Korea? For Sasha, the moving sidewalks at Incheon Airport were the coolest thing he has ever seen.

What about the food? The children have only eaten hospital food that fits their tastes, which is closer to Western foods than Asian. Although kimchi was permitted, the children have yet to try the dish. Sasha and Olga both say they like fried chicken with sweet sauce. Dima had a long list that went on and on and on, 90 percent of which were sweets. Indeed, cracker and candy wrappers were scattered about Room 306.

Sasha has on more than one occasion cried out for buckwheat soup, a Russian favorite, and apparently no Korean sweet can begin to match it.

The three want to do different things once they get out of the hospital. Dima and his mother want to take a nice, long stroll ?anywhere. Olga has a similar plan. Sasha simply shrugs. "When I leave, I'll see," he says, as if the future will take its own course and he'll follow.

Dima and Olga want a huge cake and a doll, preferably a large, furry teddy bear. If Sasha can't immediately get his buckwheat soup, he'll settle for some Legos.

The doctors at Sejong Hospital said Dima's and Sasha's surgery, which lasted for four hours, would completely cure their problems and with good care all three of them are capable of living ordinary lives.

When he grows up, Sasha is looking forward to becoming a long-distance truck driver.

Olga wants to become an attendant on Russian trains, the equivalent to a flight attendant. Olga, like Sasha, wishes to travel around Russia. But after her first experience on an airplane she's thinking about becoming a stewardesss.

Dima has other plans. He wants to become a geologist. Dima's hobby is to collect unusual stones, and often he will bring one home. Dima's little hobby, however, bothers his mother from time to time. "But it's a solvable problem," says Ms. Hahaeva, who sometimes thinks of her son's rocks as junk.

"But I always bring you pretty rocks, don't I?" the boy asked his mother.

Olga Hahaeva smiles at her son and says, "If he wants to grow up to be a geologist, that's fine. If he wants to play with his rocks, that's fine too."

To this mother, it doesn't matter what her son chooses to be, to do. The most important this is that he now has choices.

by Lee Ho-jeong

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