Pirogov’s Little Heroes: The Journey That Started It All

By Nancy Schiller

You never know where an impromptu conversation may lead. To the simple question, “How are you?” the response may be the typical “Fine,” or the answer might provide life-changing news.

It was a Monday morning conversation in 2016 that began a new journey for the America for Bulgaria Foundation. A colleague’s child had been admitted to Pirogov Hospital due to a medical emergency. The child’s fear of being unwell was compounded by the unwelcoming physical environment of the emergency admissions area. It is difficult for a child to understand that the gift of good care doesn’t always come beautifully wrapped.

But it got us thinking about whether there was something ABF could do to help.

We know a fair amount about building communities and managing significant projects. But we didn’t know much about Bulgaria’s healthcare system. To accelerate our learning, we reached out to NGO partners, corporate citizens, the medical community, and public institutions to partner in what became Little Heroes—a project to refurbish the children’s wards at Pirogov Hospital. We began with a focus on the admissions area and, with the generous support of business and individual donors, expanded the project to encompass 2,000 square meters over three floors and 65 rooms and even included an outdoor playground.

Little Heroes transformed the Pirogov children’s wards into a healing and educational environment.

We thought ABF’s role in healthcare would end with the 2017 ribbon-cutting ceremony. And then, in early 2020, along came COVID-19. Within weeks, the world was paralyzed by a fast-spreading novel virus that showed just how ill-prepared we were to meet new medical challenges.

We provided support to Bulgarian medics during the pandemic.

ABF quickly pivoted to offer assistance where it was most sorely needed and help build a coalition of partners to meet this new challenge.

Over the three pandemic years, we successfully partnered with hospitals, local and national civil society organizations, community centers, and businesses to address pressing needs. The more than one million levs we helped raise through the United Against COVID-19 campaign funded the purchase of medical equipment, protective gear, and basic medical and food supplies for hospitals and vulnerable communities. The aid reached more than 700,000 people across Bulgaria.

Additionally, we donated 300,000 levs to Pirogov Emergency Hospital and Alexandrovska University Hospital in support of their efforts in the fight against COVID-19.

Results of the United Against COVID-19 campaign

These experiences helped us get acquainted with the more chronic challenges experienced by Bulgaria’s medical system.

Access to healthcare is a right and an important indicator of a country’s living standard. In fulfilling our mission to support economic opportunity and community development, we felt that healthcare was an important element to add to our work portfolio. After consultations with diverse stakeholders, we sought approval from our Board of Directors to explore opportunities in the healthcare field, and we received it.

Since early 2022, we have sought out initiatives and helped to build partnerships that keep young medics in Bulgaria, enhance patient outcomes, and improve access to medical care nationwide.

We work with partners such as the Young Medics for Bulgaria Foundation, the Practicum Foundation, and the Association of Medical Students in Bulgaria to provide opportunities to medical professionals and help reverse the brain drain in the field.

Kelvin Health uses AI to develop screening tools for common diseases.

Our support for the Village Doctor program facilitates access to health care in underserved communities and betters patient outcomes. And alongside CancerCare.bg, we promote awareness and prevention, hoping to reach individuals before they are patients.

Both doctors and patients will benefit from the work of technology innovators and ABF partners Kelvin Health and Checkpoint Cardio, which alleviates physicians’ workloads and improves patient care through the adoption of new technologies and telemedicine solutions.

Six years after we completed the Little Heroes project, it is nothing short of astounding what a difference the transformed hospital conditions make for young patients’ healing and caregivers’ well-being. Staff morale and motivation have also improved immensely.

The refurbished waiting area in Pirogov Emergency Hospital

The Pirogov experience affirmed our conclusion that it is worth revisiting ABF’s role in this high-impact field. Today, we are applying the lessons we learned from Little Heroes to the Firefly project—through which we and our partners from Za Dobroto Foundation are renovating pediatric wards in several Bulgarian hospitals.

In the year we turn 15, we look forward to the next fifteen years and the exciting new partnerships that will help transform healthcare for all.

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