Ukrainian child receives important surgery in St. Louis thanks to act of kindness


Anton, Yana, Lynn Wittels and Nikita

Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

The St. Louis Jewish community has a history of compassion and caring for people in need. That spirit of giving was evident recently when a Jewish family 6,000 miles from home benefitted from an act of kindness.

The family came here from Kharkiv, Ukraine for medical treatment. Their 3½-year-old son Nikita, who suffers from cerebral palsy, needed surgery to enable him to walk. The procedure could have been done in other U.S. cities, but T.S. Park, the pediatric neurosurgeon and director of the Center for Cerebral Palsy Spasticity at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, is considered one of the best in his field, according to Lynn Wittels, who is the president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of St. Louis.

“He’s world renowned,” Wittels said. “They had already arranged for the surgery to be paid for, but the family didn’t have any accommodations for their stay.”

Wittels learned of the Ukrainian family from her counterpart at the J in Bensonhurst, N.Y. That organization often helps refugees with resettlement assistance in the United States.

“He said, ‘Hey, if you guys could raise some money to help them with rental cars or Airbnbs, that would really be nice,’ ” Wittels said. “So I send a note out to the board. We immediately got a bunch of commitments and money.”

Surgery for young Nikita wasn’t the Ukrainian family’s only concern. Their home in Ukraine had been bombed, so Nikita, his sister, grandmother and mother Yana relocated to Israel.

The surgery, originally planned for last fall, was rescheduled to March 2023. Wittels said that gave the J board and other friends time to arrange for the family to stay at the Ronald McDonald House. They arrived in St. Louis on March 26 and their son had successful surgery four days later. It was less than a week before Passover.

“While he was in the hospital, his mother, Yana, asked me, ‘Is there any place I can get Passover food?’ ” Wittels said. “I told her I’d take her to get it. Then I said, ‘You need to come to our house for seder. We would love to have you.’ They came and we did the four questions, and that’s when it occurred to me that we were all singing the same language. We were all singing the same songs. And no matter how far apart we live, no matter what language we speak, no matter where we are in life, we all have this in common. And it was really incredibly touching.”

Wittels joined the family for Shabbat dinner on April 21 and she invited them to one more St. Louis event: the 75th anniversary of Israel celebration at the J on April 23. Yana and her husband, Anton, looked on as Nikita navigated the new labyrinth created at the J. It was one of their final activities in St. Louis before Yana and Nikita return to Israel on April 26. Anton, an orthopedist who owns a rehab clinic in Ukraine, will return there for his work. When asked about the aid they received from the St. Louis community, Anton (translating to English for Yana) explained that the family was extremely grateful for the support.

“It’s just an amazing story,” Wittels said. “When we gave Yana a debit card, she had tears in her eyes and said to me, ‘I’m always on the giving end. I’ve never been on the receiving end.’ She’s worked in the Jewish community in Ukraine for years.”

Wittels also helped the family make another connection, with an Israeli family whose daughter came three and a half years ago for the same surgery.

“Now they see them five days a week at therapy,” Wittels said. “So it’s a small Jewish world. A big Jewish world and a small Jewish world.”