Dr. Nilas Young, a UC Davis cardiac surgeon who has made 28 trips to the former Soviet Union to save thousands of children with heart disease, has won the 2012 World of Children Health Award, known as the "Nobel Prize for child advocates."
Chief of cardiothoracic surgery at the UC Davis Health System, Young is being recognized for his work with Heart to Heart International Children's Medical Alliance, said UC Davis spokeswoman Karen Finney.
Young co-founded the organization in 1989 to recruit and train American cardiac specialists to develop surgery centers for Russian children born with congenital heart defects. He has helped treat newborns to 18-year-olds.
"It's a gift to be able to go where there's an incredible need and save kids' lives," Young said.
"These people at one point were our blood enemies, and now both sides love the teamwork, friendship and results."
The humanitarian mission began in 1988, when Young was approached by Joanne McGowan, a Bay Area woman who had befriended a Russian mother whose 7-year-old daughter suffered from a complex heart defect.
"She was the same age as my daughter, a blue baby who had obstruction of her blood flow to the heart and it couldn't get to the lungs," Young said. "We did the operation at Children's Hospital in Oakland, and the story got reported throughout the Soviet Union."
The Russian health minister asked Young to bring a team to Russia. In 1989 Young and five other doctors visited St. Petersburg's main hospital, which served 15 million people in northwest Russia but had no heart surgery for kids.
"We started bringing teams there in 1990, going back once or twice a year training heart surgeons and all the support staff needed," Young said.
In 1991, they created the project "Into The Heart Land" to start major cardiac surgery programs for children in five other major regions, including Siberia.
Under Young's leadership, Heart to Heart has saved the lives of more than 13,000 children and improved the health of thousands more, Finney said.
An expert in surgical treatments for high-risk cardiac patients, Young joined the UC Davis faculty in 2001. He leads a surgical team that provides advanced care for adults and children with complex diseases of the heart, chest, lungs and esophagus.
World of Children will formally honor Young at a ceremony in New York City on Oct. 25 with five others who are dedicated to helping the world's most vulnerable children. The awards include cash grants of up to $75,000.
For information, go to www.heart-2-heart.org.