On February 1, 2017, 8 year-old Bledina Cunaku and 5 year-old Erina Terstena from Kosovo were given a second chance to live when they received life-saving surgery at St. Francis Hospital and Heart Center on Long Island. Through the love and generosity of the Van Westerhout Molese Club and the Club Dei Carinesi, $10.000 was raised for the girls to receive their very special gift of life, answering their families’ prayers.
Mola Club president, Vito Parente was moved recently when attending an event at the Marco Polo Ristorante for a friend who was helping to raise funds for a child in desperate need of a vital heart operation. He was overwhelmed by the statistics of children from around the world who do not have access to life-saving heart surgery that is performed regularly here in the United States and Italy. He and the President of Bensonhurst’s Carini Club, Tony Troia, knew in their hearts they couldn’t ignore the glaring need to do their share.
The members of the clubs not only raised funds for their surgery, they took a personal interest in welcoming the girls and their fathers to New York. Both presidents met the families at the airport, provided transportation as needed, remained at the hospital during and after the surgeries and even took them sightseeing when they recovered. It was a true family affair. On the 18th of February, the clubs’ members and their families gathered at the Molese Club on Court Street for a farewell party.
The girls were treated to pizza and live entertainment from the Disney character Elsa, who performed “Let It Go” and further delighted the girls with the wonderment of Frozen-theme magic.
The founder and directors of the organizations devote much of their time tirelessly coordinating arrangements for suffering children with fatal heart defects to receive the medical procedures they need that are unavailable in their native or countries around the world. Messrs. Francesco DiMarco, Founder and President of Gift of Life Italy of New York; Carl Campagna, Director of Gift of Life International; and Board of Director Peter Ungara presented gratitude plaques to the members of both clubs.
They cited the 1.3 million babies born each year with heart defects. Ten percent don’t live past their first year.
The consortium of the three evolving organizations – which includes the Nassau County based Gift of Life, and rely upon Rotary Clubs and Districts throughout the world to identify specific children in need – has treated over 18,000 children.
But they want to do more.
When Francesco DiMarco first founded the Gift of Life, he had an affiliation with many hospitals who were willing to extend pro-bono surgeries. St. Francis Hospital performed the first surgery for Gift of Life in 1987. A decade or two later, cooperating hospitals like Stonybrook and Montefiore began to restrict their pro-bono heart surgery services. Eventually, only St. Francis stayed on board. This prompted Mr. DeMarco to develop an international program where he sought the help of two major hospitals in Italy who could perform the surgeries as well. This led to a surge of program incentives to provide mobile teams of doctors to perform surgeries off-site in emerging countries.
In the cases of Bledina and Erina, the Kosovo government provided their transportation to New York, where the two families were accommodated gratis at the Ronald McDonald House for the duration of their trip. Gift of Life provided for the services of two translators along with the other expenses. Dr. Sean Levchuck performed the surgeries.
Vito Parente commented on the miraculous speed of recovery the girls had, saying that they went into the roughly three-hour surgery pale as ghosts and came out with the rosiest of cheeks. At the farewell party, the fathers expressed extreme and emotional gratitude for the groups who gave their daughters a future – the collaborated efforts of the Gift of Life and Rotary Club of Verrazano, and the generosity of the Mola and Carini societies. Their daughters smiled and giggled with their colorfully painted faces while waving magic wands as they stood close by. Mr. Terstena particularly expressed teary-eyed sentiments of wishing everyone the same blessing for their loved ones, that was granted to his baby Erina.
Humbly, Vito Parente remarked that Bledina and Erina will never forget where they received their gift of life. “Imagine” he said, “these girls received their second chance at life by a group of immigrants who came from Italy. Like us, they got their second chance right here in Brooklyn.”
For more information on Gift of Life Italy of New York, contact giftoflifeny.org.