This article originally appeared in The Inquirer on Jan. 27, 1998.
Thanks to some amazing royal connections and the kindness of strangers, a poor 2-year-old Serbian boy will return to his war-torn country this week after getting his malformed heart repaired in rural New Jersey.
Nikola Majstorovic was in severe heart failure when he arrived a month ago at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills. He already had lived far longer than most children with his congenital heart problem, said surgeon Lynn B. McGrath, who performed two operations on Nikola’s heart. The boy is expected to return to Yugoslavia tomorrow.
Yesterday, Nikola, a thin child with wispy brown hair, played shyly with toys while nibbling on an apple. His pediatric cardiologist, Ljubica Georgijevic, who accompanied Nikola and his mother, Jovanka, from Yugoslavia and is the only member of the group who speaks English, said the mother was very happy her son is doing well and can return home. Luckily for them, the situation at home is much better than when they left for America.
“We are happy that the war stopped,” Georgijevic said. “We are very happy.”
Nikola’s parents were forced from their native Croatia in 1995 by an earlier round of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. They have settled in a small home provided by the government in Kupusina, a village in northern Yugoslavia. Nikola’s heart defect was obvious at birth, but nothing could be done for him.
“This congenital heart disease is very complicated," Georgijevic said. It was “very high risk” and beyond the capabilities of doctors in Yugoslavia.
In this country, McGrath said, surgeons recommend operations to repair this sort of defect at 3 months old. Without it, children rarely live more than a year. Why Nikola made it to 2 1/2 is a mystery.
By this year, though, it was clear he was dying. He was having trouble breathing, and he had no energy. “Without the operation, he should not live,” Georgijevic said, “but how long, I don’t know.”
She sought help for Nikola from the Ecumenical Humanitarian Organization in Yugoslavia. From there, the story took some “curious” turns, said Spero Margeotes, president and chief executive officer of Deborah. The ecumenical group sent an email about Nikola to Crown Princess Katherine of Yugoslavia’s exiled royal family in London.
“It so happens,” Margeotes said, “that she is a first cousin of Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece, who happens to be a very dear friend of mine.”
Margeotes, who is American-born but makes frequent trips to his family’s Greek homeland, once told Prince Pavlos, son of Greece’s deposed king, about Deborah’s Children of the World program, which provides heart surgery to about 100 foreign children each year. The prince had mentioned this to Princess Katherine. She remembered it when the email about Nikola arrived. Soon, Nikola had the go-ahead to come to New Jersey.
Even then, it took the family three weeks to get to America. They had to travel from their village to Budapest, the temporary home of the U.S. Embassy for Yugoslavia, to get their visas. They waited in line for more than a day there, then had to arrange payment for their plane fare, which came from the Christian Aid Society. “It was a real horrendous situation,” Margeotes said.
Georgijevic refused to discuss anything “political,” including how the boy’s family and medical care had been affected by the war.
Once Nikola was here, McGrath set about repairing four problems with the child’s heart. During the first operation on May 25, McGrath closed one hole between the two filling chambers of the heart and another between the two pumping chambers of the heart. Then he tried to fix two leaking valves inside the heart.
One of them continued to leak after the operation, which is not unusual in a child this age, McGrath said. On June 4, he went into Nikola’s chest a second time to replace the leaking valve with a mechanical valve. That worked.
In about 10 years, Nikola will outgrow the mechanical valve, and he will need a new one, McGrath said. Deborah will do the replacement.
“Once you operate on a child, he’s kind of your child for life,” McGrath said.
Margeotes said it was of no importance to the hospital that Nikola’s family and doctor are Serbs, whose brethren are the targets of NATO bombs in the Yugoslavian war.