Taken to Heart

HBO premieres documentary featuring Memphis surgeon, children's foundation.


In the documentary Chernobyl Heart, pediatric heart surgeon Dr. William Novick of Memphis cries after a successful surgery. The scene takes place in a dimly lit stairwell, so his tears are not visible to the camera. Nonetheless, his emotions are there, upfront and center.

Novick is the lead surgeon for the International Children's Heart Foundation (ICHF), which travels around the world providing heart surgery to needy children. The foundation's efforts in northern Belarus and northern Ukraine, the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, are chronicled in the film, which focuses on the disaster's affect on the area's children.

Produced and directed by Maryann DeLeo, Chernobyl Heart won this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. The film is making its television debut on HBO Thursday, September 9th, along with Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable by Rory Kennedy.

DeLeo's documentary opens in the "exclusion zone," the most radioactive area on earth where children cannot legally live. The film follows Adi Roche, founder of Ireland's Chernobyl Children's Project (CCP). The film crew visits various hospitals, adoption agencies, and mental-health institutions, all handling children with birth and heart defects linked to the Chernobyl accident.

During a Memphis screening last week, the audience was warned about the film's graphic scenes. The warning was not enough. Several images of deformed, handicapped, and tumored children filled the screen. Institutions were overflowing with abandoned or neglected children born during or after the incident.

"One percent of all children are born with heart defects, but only about 50 percent of those need heart surgery," says Novick. "What makes Belarus and northern Ukraine unique is not that [the children] had congenital heart disease but that we saw a very high incidence of particular heart defects that are extremely rare in the rest of the world."

For Novick, the emotional surgery featured in Chernobyl Heart is just one of many performed by his team each year. Novick and ICHF have performed lifesaving surgeries around the world since 1993, with their first mission to Zagreb, Croatia. Their work began in the Chernobyl area in 1994, with 28 surgeries. Supplies and airfare are donated.

Since that time, the organization has expanded to other parts of the world, including South America and China, with almost a dozen trips each year, totaling 2,000 surgeries in 17 countries to date. Part of that expansion includes additional surgeries in Belarus, with five more years of travel funded through Roche's CCP organization.

Even with the increased trips, most of the affected children will not be seen by ICHF's staff. "Our problem is the problem of all charities: We have more work than we have money," says Novick. When the program began, children were flown to Memphis' Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center. When costs increased to $30,000 per surgery, the foundation decided to take a more cost-effective route and go to the children. Now surgeries cost just $1,700 per child.

"The film has helped [ICHF] in terms of awareness, not in terms of dollars yet," says Novick. "It has allowed other doctors in the United States doing this type of work to coordinate our efforts."

ICHF's goal this year is to perform 350 to 400 surgeries. To reach that goal, additional surgeons have been brought on board to oversee projects in other countries. To make a more lasting impact, the foundation is conducting training sessions for physicians in the affected countries on detecting heart ailments, early treatment, and surgery.

DeLeo says her film idea grew out of a desire to give "voice to the voiceless." "There are too many kids out there who are suffering," she says. "When I realized how many kids had been affected, it was shocking. I think it's a story that has to be told."

The Memphis screening of Chernobyl Heart was preceded by Indian Point, Rory Kennedy's documentary that details the potential for a nuclear disaster at the Indian Point power plant in New York. Viewers will recognize Kennedy as the younger sister of Robert Jr., who is featured prominently in the film for his fight to close the facility. The film explores the facility's proximity to Manhattan (35 miles south), its security procedures, and government oversight. Through interviews, internal investigations, and computerized simulations, Kennedy makes the case for the facility as a possible target for terrorists.

Both films will run on HBO during a 21-day period. Check HBO.com for listings.

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