Teenager Celebrates with Upper East Side Woman Who Helped Save Her Life

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Helane Brachfeld-Colvin carries on her husband's legacy with Project Kids Worldwide

Last Thursday, Marisel Rodriguez celebrated her Sweet Sixteen over lunch with family, friends and the woman who saved her life. Although she didn't look it, the cheerful teenager had just undergone life-saving heart surgery the week before.

It was the third, and last time, she would have to treat her double outlet right ventricle, thanks to Helane Brachfeld-Colvin's fund, Project Kids Worldwide (PKW).

Working through a Spanish translator (a flagged waiter at the restaurant), Marisel haltingly described how she ended up in Bistango restaurant on Third Avenue between 29th and 30 streets, just blocks away from New York University Langone Medical Center. She had traveled with her mother, Marisol, and her grandmother, Augusta, from the Dominican Republic on a subsidy that Brachfeld-Colvin provided. Twelve years ago, Brachfeld-Colvin's husband Dr. Stephen Colvin, former chairman of the cardio-thoracic surgery department at NYU, decided that pioneering a minimally invasive alternative to open heart surgery was not enough if he couldn't use it on those who needed it the most.

So, in between his shifts at the hospital, he launched a nonprofit organization to give impoverished children with heart disease from all around the world quality medical care and treatment in the United States.

"Some of these countries don't have nearly as advanced technology as we have; others just don't have the financial resources to pay for it and still others do, but they won't spend it on their people," said Marilyn Jacobson, a retired social worker who helps Brachfeld-Colvin run the multifaceted organization.

When her husband passed in 2007, Brachfeld-Colvin, a nurse practitioner with 23 years of experience at NYU, lost no time in taking over his pet project.

"It was difficult because I was very overwhelmed by the tragic death of my husband and by my two young kids at the time, but I felt that I couldn't let these people down," she said. "As someone who helps people for a living, I just couldn't say 'no' and I thought this was a good way to continue his legacy. He would have wanted this."

Dr. Colvin's favorite motto was "there are no problems, only solutions," which could easily apply to Brachfeld-Colvin's efforts to continue running the program her husband started. After five years on the job, she has learned to push through the endless red tape from foreign embassies and airlines to war zones and language barriers.

"I had really a tough case," she said. "We were getting ready to fly an eight-month old and his mother from Nigeria to the U.S. where they would connect with the father living in Canada, when Delta made us buy a seat for the infant sitting in his mother's lap. Eventually we bargained for a discount." Most of the other nonprofits decline to cover the airfare of both parent and child, but Brachfeld-Colvin would not hear of it. "How can you send a small child, who's sick no less, on a plane by themselves?" she asked.

From start to finish, Brachfeld-Colvin makes of all the arrangements for the family, including finding them a place to stay for the surgery and recovery time. All told, the planning can take as little as two weeks or as long as six months, and cost up between $40,000 and $50,000 including room and board. Sometimes families like Marisol's have relatives in New York that they can stay with, but not often.

PKW collaborates with civil authorities, international social agencies, charitable organizations and medical communities to raise funds, but still they are largely dependent on private donations and fundraising events. This is the first year that they will not be holding their annual wine auction, which in the past has taken place at the Manhattan Penthouse and the Ritz Carlton Hotel. At $200 a ticket, they were able to attract 200 people with wine tasting, a live band, a sit-down dinner and open bar, plus a raffle and live auction with great prizes.

"It is a very big undertaking," said Jacobson. "That's why we decided to take a break this year. It's exhausting. Thankfully we have a lot of people who come out to help us because we couldn't do it alone." In 2010, they also held a fundraiser in the Hamptons at the home of Brachfeld-Colvin's brother Alan Brachfeld in Quogue, where 150 guests were wined and dined, including Dr. Aubrey Galloway, Dr. Stephen Colvin's successor as chairman of the cardio-thoracic surgery department at NYU.

The doctors especially at NYU perform all the surgeries for PKW pro bono, in addition to treating their regular insured patients. The hospitals themselves charge a fee, but it is significantly discounted. Still, Project Kids can only afford to run on a small staff out of Brachfeld-Colvin's home and to sponsor the surgeries of nine children in the past 10 years. "We can't expand by very much," Jacobson said, "because we are asking doctors to do this for free so we obviously have to limit ourselves."

They also got rid of their PR agents when they realized they didn't need any help getting publicity. PKW has been featured on ABC's Nightline and Fox News. In fact, Marisel got a birthday surprise right before the luncheon, when Ashley Mastronardi of Fox 5 News interviewed her for a segment that aired the same day. PKW has also received recognition from former Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, for the miraculous surgery of 11-year-old Vasila Hossaini, who grew up in the slums of war-torn Afghanistan.

This week, Brachfeld-Colvin is setting off to conquer new territory with a trip to Singapore.

Not for business this time, "For pleasure!" she said in anticipation of the much deserved vacation with her two children. However, she won't resist the opportunity to visit some of her old patients in South Asia while she's there.

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