American College Of Surgeons - Inspiring Quality: Highest Standards, Better Outcomes

2016 International Volunteer Award: J. Nilas Young

Dr. Young with three-year-old Namina, who was born with a life-threatening heart defect, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in 2012

Dr. Young with three-year-old Namina, who was born with a life-threatening heart defect, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in 2012


J. Nilas Young, MD, FACS, a cardiothoracic surgeon from Sacramento, CA, received the International Surgical Volunteerism Award in 2016 for his work in developing, implementing, and sustaining children’s heart surgery programs throughout Russia.

Dr. Young’s volunteerism began in 1988, when he was asked to perform pro bono surgery on a seven-year-old Soviet girl with congenital heart disease in an effort to de-escalate Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Soviet cardiac surgeons had given up hope of saving the girl’s life, but Dr. Young succeeded and was subsequently inundated with requests for help from the parents of sick children throughout the country. Seeing an opportunity to save the lives of many children, Dr. Young cofounded Heart to Heart International Children’s Medical Alliance, where he is medical director.

Dr. Young (right) operating with a new cardiac team in Kaliningrad, Russia, in 2013

Continuing to work through the political and social unrest that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Dr. Young led Heart to Heart to develop what became known as Russia’s best infant heart surgery program in St. Petersburg. As his positive results became known, the St. Petersburg Ministry of Health asked him to develop surgical care for adult patients. After developing two self-sustaining heart programs, Dr. Young realized that millions of families remained without care for heart conditions, that a basic medical infrastructure upon which high-quality surgical care could be built was already in place, and that his model had proven successful, cost-effective, and could be replicated and scaled to save thousands of children. Subsequently, in 2002, he started the Into the Heartland Campaign (2002–2019) to give children throughout Russia access to lifesaving surgery.

As Heart to Heart now expands into Latin America—the first programs launched in Lima, Peru, earlier this year—the impact of Dr. Young’s efforts are being felt throughout the world. In his 27 years of volunteer surgery and program building, he has saved the lives of more than 25,000 surgical patients. Dr. Young’s contributions have been multifaceted, as a surgeon, educator, and, perhaps most importantly, a not-for-profit leader focused on building local surgical capacity.

Heart to Heart has been uniquely effective within the international humanitarian community in consistently developing self-sustaining surgical programs, and the outcomes of Dr. Young’s volunteer work through the program are profound. For example, in Municipal Children’s Hospital No. 1 in St. Petersburg, more than 9,000 children have been saved because of his work, and the program has been self-sufficient since 1999. Other successes are evident across Russia, and more are anticipated as the program expands globally.