A doctor without borders

6 min read

Gennadiy Fuzaylov makes it his business to get kids from around the world the best of care

Oleksiy Skrynnyk was just a carefree 9-year-old, his fishing rod slung over his shoulder as he walked home from his favorite pond. He never saw the low-hanging power line.

Twenty-two hundred volts shot through his body, entering his right shoulder and exiting out his left foot. The electrocution burns were extensive. His right arm was so badly injured it had to be amputated.

Though the level of care in Oleksiy’s homeland was what saved his life, his mother, Olga Zabolotina, knew her son needed more.

“[There] almost was not further treatment and prosthetic rehabilitation for Oleksiy in Ukraine,” she said, adding, “He had multiple complications there.”

Enter the plight of a 5-year-old Ukrainian girl, also the victim of horrible burns — and the kindness of a stranger.

Known as a hero for rescuing her 2-year-old sister from a house fire, Anastasia Ovchar was flown to the Shriners Hospital for Children — Boston after the the Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko, intervened on her behalf. At a hospital press conference about the little girl, a Ukrainian doctor who had treated the child approached Massachusetts General Hospital pediatric anesthesiologist Gennadiy Fuzaylov — a member of the Boston team working on the case and an instructor in anesthesia at Harvard Medical School — and privately appealed for help with Oleksiy Skrynnyk.

“I felt … it’s not only if the president asks, we should help,” Fuzaylov said, as he recalled their conversation. “Other people should have privilege to treatment in this hospital.”

So began Fuzaylov’s selfless project. For the past three years he has helped bring several Eastern European children suffering with burn injuries to Shriners for treatment.

The process is a complex one. Obtaining hospital approval is typically the easiest piece of the equation. Securing financing can be a time-consuming, difficult task, as can navigating complicated visas, transportation, and housing.

For his work with Oleksiy, permission from Shriners took one afternoon. Getting the boy and his mother to the United States took four months. In his quest for help and support, Fuzaylov sent countless letters and made endless phone calls to politicians and nonprofit organizations. He was finally able to bring the pair to Boston in fall 2005.

Shriners Hospitals for Children is an international network of hospitals specializing in pediatric care. The facilities treat children up to 18 years of age, free of charge, and offer care for burn injuries, orthopedic conditions, spinal cord injuries, and cleft lips and palates. The Boston hospital specializes in comprehensive acute reconstructive and rehabilitative care for young burn victims.

Sparkling brown eyes and an engaging smile animate the kind face of this young doctor from Uzbekistan who has two children of his own and who never sees the glass as half empty. Fuzaylov hails from a family of physicians — his father was a doctor, as are his three brothers. He trained in disaster relief and did volunteer work in the Soviet Union where he attended medical school. But when he came to the United States as a refugee to continue his medical training, it was the help he received from others that left a lasting impression.

“I [encountered] a bunch of people who helped without asking anything back,” he said. “I always remembered those people.”

Today Fuzaylov uses that lesson in his own volunteer work. He had a simple response to Oleksiy’s mother who asked how she could thank him. “You need to bring another patient here,” he told her.

She listened, and together they have helped six more children receive treatment at the Boston hospital.

Others contact him regularly looking for help. Recently he took a call from a Swedish reporter inquiring about helping a young refugee from Iraq, the casualty of a car bomb. Though the boy’s passport has expired, Fuzaylov is optimistic about getting him to Boston, via Jordan.

“So far, so good,” he said with his characteristic smile.

He never asks people how they got his name; it doesn’t matter, he said, and has no bearing on the patient’s diagnosis. What matters is helping others.

“If you can make a difference in the life of another person,” said Fuzaylov, “it’s something big.”

On a recent afternoon in the hospital’s lobby in Boston, straight from one of their regular follow-up visits, Oleksiy and his mother Olga talked about the man who changed their lives.

“I’m unbelievably happy,” she said, beaming. “He’s the nicest person in the world. … I don’t know what we would do without him.”

With a mop of slightly tousled brown hair that looks like the newest salon rage, Alex (American for Oleksiy) smiled and chatted like any other preteen about his seventh-grade class at his school in Charlestown and his interest in computers, soccer, and friends. It’s only recently he has stopped wearing the hat that hid the extensive burns on his head. A series of operations by a plastic surgeon helped reconstruct his scalp and redistribute his hair.

“I am very glad to be here, it’s a great opportunity,” he said, in perfect English, his right arm resting on his lap with a prosthetic hand peeking out from under his sleeve.

Though he has had to learn to do everything left-handed, the switch didn’t stop him from picking up art, again with help from Fuzaylov. On a visit to the doctor’s home, Alex took an interest in his daughter’s art supplies. Soon he was painting and drawing with noticeable skill.

“In three months he showed me his first picture, I was shocked,” said Fuzaylov. The doctor contacted officials at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and encouraged them to help.

“I told them this is like a rehabilitation process. [He] wants to draw with his left, nondominant hand; you’ve got to do something.”

Alex now takes classes at the museum’s school on Saturdays, as part of an unlimited scholarship.

Fuzaylov’s drive and dedication are infectious. Inspired by his kindness and generosity, Olga is attending nursing classes in another attempt to “give back.”

“Life is possible, the future is possible for Oleksiy,” she said, her voice wavering. “[Now], it is necessary to help others.”