She arrived the first time as a frightened 3-year-old child, pale and tiny, her lips and toes tinged blue from lack of oxygen.
Twenty-four years later, she strode through the doors of Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, a confident and healthy young woman eager to revisit the place where doctors saved her life.
For Veronyka Trebesh, the return visit brought back memories of the long journey she made as a child, from her home in Ukraine to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for surgery to correct her congenital heart defect.
To her surprise, she also reunited with two of her caregivers, a doctor and a nurse who remember well nursing the tiny Ukrainian girl through her recovery.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I came back to the hospital,” Trebesh said, as she beamed beside nurse Marcy Smith, RN, and pediatric intensivist Dominic Sanfilippo, MD. “I didn’t expect people who knew me would be here. That is really nice. It is a real treat.”
Trebesh, now 28, credits her medical turn-around to a chance meeting years ago.
It began when Melanie Smith, of East Lansing, traveled to Ukraine in 1992 in hopes of finding family ties there. A member of the Baha’i faith, she visited the Baha’i community for a month.
In Kiev, she met Victoria and Nikolas Trebesh and their children—Bogdan and Veronyka. Little Veronyka, only 18 months old, clearly suffered the effects of her congenital heart defect, called tricuspid atresia.
“She was such a little child, delayed developmentally,” Melanie Smith said. “Her nose was blue. Her fingers were blue. Her lips were blue.”
Doctors had told her parents that Veronyka’s life expectancy was about 10 years.
Moved by her plight, Melanie Smith began to search for medical help as soon as she returned to the U.S. A pediatric heart surgeon, Rodolfo Neirotti, MD, and Butterworth Hospital agreed to provide medical care for Veronyka.
Donations from friends, family and Variety the Children’s Charity covered transportation costs.
“We knocked on doors, and doors flew open,” Smith said. “It was really a miracle.”
The long journey
In 1994, Veronyka and her mother took two trains and a plane flight to arrive in Michigan. Melanie Smith and her husband, David, served as a host family, providing a home away from home for them.
At the hospital, Dr. Neirotti performed an open-heart surgery that rerouted Veronyka’s blood flow to her lungs, improving the oxygenation of her blood.
The blond 3 1/2-year-old girl from Ukraine made an impression on the doctors and nurses who cared for her in the pediatric intensive care unit.
“I remember her as a tiny little thing,” said nurse Marcy Smith. “Easygoing, very sweet.”
“She had a wonderful spirit about her,” Dr. Sanfilippo said. “I thought she was very easy for us to take care of—more stoic than a typical American.”
For Veronyka, her memories of the visit mingle with family stories she heard over the years. She treasures photos that show her in her hospital bed, her mom beside her.
The Trebesh family left Ukraine not long after Veronyka’s surgery. They eventually settled in Vancouver, Canada, where Trebesh lives now. She works in fundraising and volunteers for Variety, the charity that helped her long ago.
She continues to see congenital heart specialists for annual checkups, but she has not needed any further operations. And she lives an active life.
“I’m doing very well. Very healthy,” she said. “I’ve traveled a lot. I like biking and walking a lot. There is nothing really off limits for me.”
A chance to return
Recently, an opportunity came up to attend a conference in Michigan. Trebesh decided to make a side-trip to Grand Rapids.
With David and Melanie Smith, she arrived at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Wendy Winger, the nurse manager for the pediatric intensive care unit, gave her a tour.
There were no familiar sights in the building as the new, larger children’s hospital opened in 2011.
It includes a cardiac pediatric intensive care unit, which opened in January 2019, just for children with heart conditions. A Congenital Heart Center has expanded the care for children and adults born with heart defects.
“Everything has changed. Everything is brand new,” Trebesh said as she explored an ICU room. “It’s all state of the art, all new technology.”
Seeing her now as a healthy adult was heart-warming, Marcy Smith said.
“I’m so glad we can do this here,” she said.
“It’s wonderful,” said Dr. Sanfilippo.