Polish Children’s Hospital

7:41 pm Health Stories



Talk about an interesting dilemma.

Tom Pugh needed to board a Polish National airline bound for Warsaw, a trip he’s made numerous times in the last 10 or so years. Only this time, he was lugging 50 pounds of liquid children’s Tylenol.

What to do? Does he notify security and risk losing the precious cargo, which he’s taking to Poland’s Litewska Children’s Hospital? Luckily, his son Matthew came up with an idea: Put the medicine in an ordinary Nike gym bag and go for broke.

It worked. The family – including Pugh’s wife and daughter, Sarah – breeze through the gate. “No one said boo,” Pugh said. The children got their Tylenol.

Pugh is chief executive officer of the John Heinz Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine in Wilkes-Barre Township. He’s been using his executive skills and health care know-how to help the Polish children’s hospital since the early 1990s, when he joined an international effort to modernize the hospital, which hadn’t seen improvements in more than 40 years.

Pugh, along with Wyoming Valley residents Dr. George Cimochowski, Pauline Friedman and Phyllis Belk, became the hospital’s “best friends over the ocean,” according to Friends of Litewska Children’s Hospital Foundation administrator Dr. Adam Jelonek, via e-mail from Warsaw.

In the early days, Pugh traveled to Poland numerous times to speak to corporations, hoping to drum up donations. Since he does not speak Polish, it was no mean trick. But with translators’ help, Pugh got his message across.

The end result of American efforts such as Pugh’s, Belk’s and Friedman’s, according to Jelonek: “We have managed to save the lives of numerous children, and also to accelerate the recovery of many of the hospital’s patients.”

The initial goal was two-fold: improve the hospital’s infrastructure and train its personnel. It was a formidable task.

Before, elevators only went to the fourth floor of the six-floor hospital, which meant patients often had to be carried up stairs.

Heat and electricity were intermittent at best. Most of the time the temperature, even in the winter, hovered around 50 degrees inside. Lights went on and off. To save energy, hospital personnel only turned on every fourth bulb.

“They would do wonderful medical work in very poor conditions,” Pugh said. “People would work with sweaters and gloves on. They had access to technology but if something broke they had a hard time fixing it.”

Thanks to foundation money, new elevators were installed and an atrium built. Jelonek said other improvements included renovating and modernizing the hematology and oncology departments, the dialysis station, infant ward, intensive care unit, inpatients’ ward and bacteriological and hearing labs. The money also established cardiology, hematology-oncology and psychiatric units.

The end result? A recent foundation study indicates a dramatic reduction of 52 percent in the mortality rate in several departments, including intensive care, oncology and cardio-surgery, which is where 9-year-old Karolinka got her heart fixed.

Karolinka is from the small Polish town of Suwalki. Thanks to U.S.-made products, doctors were able to close her heart septal defect. “Thanks to the Friends of Litewska, she can avoid painful and risky operation on open heart,” Jelonek said.

In Poland, and at the children’s hospital, it is a new world. But dramatic change came with a high price.

The collapse of communism in Poland decimated the nation’s already meager public hospital budgets, according to the United States Agency for International Development. This forced institutions such as Litewska Children’s Hospital – one of Warsaw’s oldest and largest pediatric teaching hospitals – to do without necessities such as running hot water.

Poland’s new decentralization was, for the first time, forcing hospital managers to find funding and answer to their communities and patients instead of central planners.

With a small planning grant from USAID, several private hospitals and individuals created Poland’s first private voluntary support group for a public institution – Friends of Litewska Children’s Hospital.

The word friends was important because in Poland the word volunteer meant a person coerced to work by the nation’s communist bosses. “The first problem was credibility,” Jelonek said.

“At that time, foundations were not very popular in our country. They were actually seen as organizations extracting money from people’s pockets. Second, the needs of the hospital could seem impossible to either define, or monitor, for potential donors – a virtual bottomless pit.”

But soon, major U.S. companies like McDonald’s, Amway and Pepsi, as well as Polish corporations, began donating time as board members, while making large financial contributions. Airlines and hotels donated tickets and rooms. And U.S. and Polish law, accounting and advertising companies contributed services pro bono.

In one year, Friends of Litewska obtained commitments of $1.5 million for the renovation of the hospital, according to the USAID. A nurse-training program involving five U.S. medical institutions – including several area hospitals – jumped in to provide training pro bono.

Throughout the 1990s, the hospital sent numerous medical personnel to Pennsylvania facilities such as Hershey Medical Center, Wilkes-Barre General Hospital and John Heinz for training in areas such as infectious disease control. Nurses from area hospitals also traveled to Poland for 10-day on-site training sessions.

Aid spending for the program lasted for only a year and a half, ending in the fall of 1993, but the foundation continues to thrive, thanks to the on-going efforts of many American institutions.

“Western corporations really understand charity and know how to give,” Pugh said. “McDonald’s, for instance, donates $3,500 to the hospital every time it opens a new restaurant in Poland.”

The 350-bed hospital employs more than 200 doctors. As privitization continues, Pugh expects the doctor-patient ratio to change. But the hospital now routinely performs such advanced procedures as open heart surgeries and kidney transplants.

Each time Pugh and other humanitarian visitors travel to the hospital, they take supplies and often cash donations. Pugh took Tylenol. On an earlier trip, a cardiac surgeon from General brought a batch of pediatric heart valves.

Typically, the children stay in Litewska hospital for long stretches of time, long enough that the facility now operates a school and art therapy program. In art class, the children produce distinctive crayon and watercolor paintings that are exhibited throughout Warsaw.

A number of the paintings are also on display at John Heinz, which collects money for the art program through collection jugs. Last week, the rehabilitation center sent $1,000 in donations to the school for supplies such as paint, crayons and paper. Each year, John Heinz sends up to $3,000, which includes some private donations.

Occasionally, the hospital gives the children a theme around which to paint. Once, it was “What America Looks Like.” Pugh said one of the paintings was of tall buildings with lots of dollar bills floating down.

“This has been a wonderful relationship for us,” Pugh said. “In the scope of world problems, maybe it doesn’t mean anything. But it’s a nice thing between us. There’s a lot of connections between this little hospital and Wilkes-Barre.”

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