Vanya Graham

When the goodwill of others helped cover her medical expenses, Vanya Graham decided to give back

By Mayo Clinic Staff

"The doctor said I could do everything but tackle football," Vanya Graham remembers after undergoing surgery to correct scoliosis.

Looking back at her childhood, Vanya Graham remembers when times were good. She remembers jumping rope, playing outside at the park and coloring on sidewalks with chalk.

She also remembers long, harsh winters with no heat, food or electricity. And being too afraid to play outside because of bombs and snipers.

"One day we were just playing at the park and had to go inside for lunch," Vanya recalls. "Within a few moments, a bomb exploded in the exact spot we were playing."

In 1992, when she was 6 years old, Vanya's native city of Sarajevo, Bosnia, was torn apart by religious tension that led to more than 3,500 NATO bombing runs over the small country. Entire villages were destroyed, and thousands of people were expelled from their homes and detained in camps where they were tortured and sometimes executed.

"Before the war, it didn't matter what religion you were," the 26-year-old Rochester, Minn., resident says. "Then everything changed. My brother was playing basketball nearby when a bomb went off, and he was injured by some bomb fragments. He's lucky to be alive. The hospital where he was rushed to have emergency surgery didn't have any electricity."

In 1996, Graham's family fled their war-torn homeland with help from the United Nations. Vanya, along with her mother, father, brother and sister, moved to an apartment in the small blue-collar town of Austin, Minn.

"We became the first Bosnian family in Austin," she says. "Our sponsors helped find an apartment for us to live in, and they helped us learn English. We're still very grateful for their support because we felt lost."

Free from the terror of war, Vanya still felt the tension. She knew what her parents went through to keep the family alive and what they were going through to build new lives in a new world. She didn't want to cause them any more worry. Especially not about the pain she was starting to feel in her back and hips.

A healing mission

Within a few years, Vanya's pain became almost unbearable.

"My ribs hurt all the time, and my hips shifted unevenly, so it became really uncomfortable to walk," she recalls. And the S-shaped curve in her spine was undeniable.

A specialist at Mayo Clinic diagnosed her with scoliosis, where the spine curves abnormally from side to side. An X-ray revealed Vanya's arched 71 degrees.

"It was one of the worst cases my doctor had seen," Vanya says. "By that point a brace wouldn't have helped. The doctor said my lungs were starting to crush my other organs. Our only option was surgery—it was surgery or my life."

But her family couldn't afford the surgery. And because her parents weren't yet U.S. citizens, no bank would give them a loan.

Through good fortune, the family found Sister Generose Gervais. For nearly three decades, the Poverello Foundation she helped establish has represented a ministry of hope and healing for thousands of men, women and children who receive care at Mayo Clinic Hospital — Rochester, Saint Marys Campus. The foundation provides financial support to patients who are unable to pay, carrying on Mayo Clinic's long tradition of providing care to patients, regardless of their ability to pay.

Sister Generose and her co-founders named the foundation for Saint Francis of Assisi, who devoted his life to serving the poor. The son of a wealthy merchant family, Saint Francis chose a life of poverty, humility, charity and service to God, earning the name "Il Poverello," or "little poor one."

"Helping people in need — that's the healing mission of Christians," Sister Generose says. "The Poverello Foundation carries out the work of Christ. It restores faith in humanity."

To help people in need, like Vanya's family, the Poverello Foundation consists of an endowment fund that's largely supported by donations from grateful patients and benefactors. Since its inception in 1983, the fund has impacted more than 10,500 patients by providing more than $17.8 million in financial support.

A renewed life

To fix the curve in Vanya's spine, the doctors had to cut one of her ribs and fuse it with a titanium rod. The 12-hour surgery was a success, and Vanya started physical rehabilitation almost immediately, returning home about a week later.

Physicians at Mayo operated on Vanya in December. By spring, not only was she 2 inches taller, but she was back to playing her favorite sport: tennis.

"The doctor said I could do everything but tackle football," she remembers with a smile.

Forever grateful to the clinic and her doctors, Vanya later made a gift to the Poverello Foundation in honor of her surgeon, whom she remembers saying, "Everyone is welcome at Mayo Clinic, no matter what their financial situation."

And she wanted to carry on that tradition.