Creating better health outcomes for the children who need it most, no matter where they live

Dr. James Rutka with a young patient in Ukraine. supplied

Dr. James Rutka with a young patient in Ukraine. supplied

After years of sending children with operable brain tumours more than 700 away to the capital city of Kiev, the Lviv City Children’s Clinical Hospital in western Ukraine is ready to start performing life-saving pediatric neurosurgery in its own operating rooms.

This new capability, which eases the practical and financial burden for families by allowing children with brain tumours to receive treatment close to home, can be attributed directly to a program located right here in Canada: the Ukraine Paediatric Fellowship Program (UPFP) at at the Hospital for Sick Children, known as SickKids, in Toronto, a partnership program with Children of Chornobyl Canadian Fund and Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

“Where a child lives should not determine if they live,” says Nancy Horvath, associate director at SickKids Foundation. “This is at the heart of SickKids mission to share our knowledge far beyond our borders and create a better world with healthier children. The Ukraine Paediatric Fellowship Program is a great example of our international impact.”

Supported by $6-million in donations – including $1-million from the Children of Chornobyl Canadian Fund and $4-million from the Temerty Family Foundation, founded by Ukraine-born businessesman James Temerty – the UPFP provides training to physicians in Ukraine through SickKids doctors who travel to the eastern European country and by bringing Ukrainian doctors to SickKids.

For the last two and a half years, teams of SickKids doctors have gone to Ukraine, led by Dr. James Rutka, a neurosurgeon and co-director of the Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre at SickKids, and Dr. Myroslava Romach, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and medical director of the UPFP.

During their time in Ukraine, these SickKids teams deliver lectures at conferences and provide clinical consultations on difficult cases. Many of the lectures are telecast across multiple regions to ensure they reach as many doctors as possible.

“In terms of focus, we picked areas of specialization where language is not as critical, and certainly surgical techniques lend themselves to observation and the language used is largely universal,” says Dr. Romach. “Based on discussions with our Ukrainian partners, we decided we were going to focus on brain disorders such as tumours and epilepsy in children initially, and that’s where we’ve directed our efforts since the program’s inception.”

As a result of their repeat visits to Ukraine, the SickKids UPFP teams have been able to identify other opportunities for knowledge sharing; Ms. Horvath says the program has expanded its focus this year to include urology, cystic fibrosis and perinatal maternal mental health.
Since 2013, close to a dozen Ukrainian doctors have come to SickKids as UPFP fellows. In November alone, the hospital hosted five doctors from Ukraine.

“It was a very good experience for us – we had opportunities to see a lot of difficult cases of congenital neurological defects,” says Dr. Mykhailo Lovha, a pediatric neurosurgeon from Lutsk who was among last month’s cohort of UPFP fellows. “Dr. Rutka performed a lot of of operations, including neurosurgery for epilepsy.”

Dr. Lovha says he was particularly impressed by SickKids’ interdisciplinary approach to neurosurgery. During his observership, he saw practitioners such as neurosurgeons, neurologists, oncologists and radiologists working closely together. He says he also found it especially valuable to learn minimally invasive techniques for removing brain tumours.

“In Ukraine, there are a lot of children with tumours and neurosurgical problems,” he says. “I’m sure I can perform better operations today because I’ve seen them done at SickKids, by some of the best doctors in the world.”

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