For the past four years, Nadezhda Babenko and Mikhail Kaabak carved a name out for themselves as the only surgeons in Russia who performed kidney transplants on toddlers and low-weight children.
Despite the risks of carrying out the procedure on children weighing 6 to 10 kilograms, the duo enjoyed extraordinary success, earning them an offer to head the new and expanding organ-transplant department at the National Medical Research Center for Children's Health (NCHD), where they worked part-time at a cut-rate salary.
But this month, after 23 successful transplant surgeries since the department was established in February, the surgeons learned that their work at the Moscow medical facility was finished.
Babenko and Kaabak had been fired because they had used an unauthorized drug, leaving their existing patients without follow-up care and dozens of children awaiting organ transplants from the surgery team in limbo.
While the drug in question, Alemtuzumab, is commonly used abroad on child transplant patients to minimize the risk of organ rejection and was authorized by the Russian Health Ministry for other uses, it was not allowed for transplants.
The problem, according to Babenko, is that the drug was essential to treating the patients she and Kaabak were dealing with.
“Children at such an early age cannot accept the standard immunosuppression that is prescribed in the clinical recommendations of the Health Ministry," she told the Russian website Pravmir.
The public reaction to the firing of the two doctors, who had quit their positions at the Petrovsky Russian Scientific Center for Surgery after being offered the new role at the NCHD, has been harsh.
As of November 22, more than 485,000 people had signed a petition on Change.org demanding that the surgical team led by Kaabak be allowed to return to work at the NCHD.
"It is necessary to protect those who treat children and seek to develop this branch of medicine and others, thus developing Russia," wrote one supporter of the petition, which was organized by the mother of a former transplant patient.
The social-media hashtag #Children_Need_Kaabak (#детям_нужен_каабак) has been spread by Russian medical professionals and celebrities, including actress and former parliament deputy Maria Kozhevnikova.
"Rise up huge country! Protect your small children and fight the Health Ministry for life!" Kozhevnikova wrote on her Instagram account.
The issue has even attracted the attention of a Kremlin advisory body, the Human Rights Council, which expressed its concern that some of the 75 children awaiting kidney transplants at the NCHD were being sent to other medical facilities and called on Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova to take notice.
“The council asks you…to pay personal attention to the situation so that all children who need a kidney transplant receive timely and high-quality medical care," read a letter from council head Valery Fadeyev, suggesting the situation was seen as a human rights issue.
Despite the uproar, the NCHD -- which performs transplants free of charge -- says its new transplant department will live on.
Interfax quoted the NCHD as saying in a written response to its questions on November 18 that a new doctor had been hired to replace Babenko and Kaabak, and "a program is still being implemented to prepare and conduct surgeries related to kidney transplants in children."
The NCHD added that the hiring of a full-time surgeon had made it "impractical" to keep Babenko and Kaabak on as outsourced, part-time employees working for one-quarter of a normal salary.