- By Philippa Roxby
- Health reporter, Poland
More than 600 children with cancer have been evacuated from Ukraine to resume life-saving treatment in Europe and North America. The BBC recently spent time at a hotel in Poland that serves as a safe place for families to rest before being transferred for cancer treatment.
18-month-old Pavlo, who is suffering from bone cancer, happily plays with toys after the first leg of his journey.
He is one of many Ukrainian children with cancer who are being examined by an international team of doctors in Poland before being sent abroad for medical treatment – 21 of whom have been sent to the UK.
“I had to go for my son”
Not long ago, Pavlo was a healthy toddler living peacefully with his older sister, mother and father near Lviv, Ukraine.
But she was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer and began chemotherapy. When the war began, air raid sirens sounded day and night, forcing the family to hide in a basement.
“It was a lot of stress for my boy. He was scared at night. I took him in my arms to put him to sleep and ran down the stairs,” says his mother Lesia.
In order to give her the best chances in life, she had no choice but to flee to Poland.
“Until the last moment, I wasn’t ready to leave the house,” she says. “Home is home. But the doctor warned me that one of the medications in the treatment could run out.”
Pavlo and his mother drove in a convoy of vehicles carrying 40 children with cancer and 100 of their family members from the West Ukrainian Children’s Specialized Medical Center in Lviv to the Einhorn Clinic – a hotel-turned-triage center – in central Poland. This is the fifth group to be transported there since early March.
The evacuations were organized jointly by the American charity St. Jude, which specializes in children’s research, the Heroes Foundation, a Polish specialist in childhood cancer, and the Tabletochki Charitable Foundation in Ukraine.
The children’s medical records will be translated to accompany them on the next leg of their journey – to hospitals in Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Two hundred people have signed up to help, and more are offering their services every day.
According to local doctors, more than 2,000 children with cancer may still need help to leave Ukraine. Some cannot walk because they are too seriously ill. Those who need urgent treatment.
The effort to evacuate hundreds of children with cancer in convoys is “extraordinary” and has never been seen before, says Dr. Roman Kizyma, a pediatric oncologist who is helping coordinate the evacuation from Lviv.
From the third day of the war, it was clear to him that it was no longer possible to safely process them in Ukraine.
“They fight two wars”
“They are in a catastrophic state,” says Dr. kizyma “So if treatment is interrupted, they could all die, thousands of them or even more. Without treatment, they have no chance. With treatment, 70 to 80 percent can be cured.”
He says he’s angry at what happened and wants Russians to pay for the pain and devastation they’ve caused families. “Now they have two wars – one against cancer and one against Russia,” he says.
Natalia Lavrova and her three-year-old son Kyril have also just arrived at the triage clinic deep in the Polish countryside, after a long 10-hour train and bus journey from Lviv. However, nothing can erase the horror of the past few weeks.
In February, days before the Russian attacks began, Kyril was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He had headaches, vomited and slept all the time.
“We had an operation planned. We’ve been to the hospital with my boy,” she says. My husband called me in the morning and said: “The war has started”. Dnipro, the city we live in, was bombed.
“I can’t get used to it. It’s like a nightmare,” she explains in her native Russian.
The trauma these children and their families endured cannot be overstated, says Dr. Asya Agulnik, a pediatric critical care physician at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, who greets her upon arrival in Poland.
Add to that the psychological trauma of being uprooted and transported to another country, and the fear that cancer treatment will be interrupted.
“The effects are significant, both medically and psychologically,” says Dr. Agulnik. Children are already extremely complicated and fragile patients, and moving is a calculated risk, she explains.
The Clinique de la Licorne volunteers are ready to help where they can – and some are refugees themselves, like therapist Ina Anbousi.
Ina arrived on the first bus with children fleeing Ukraine in early March and since then has been helping everyone who has passed through the clinic.
She stayed in touch with children cared for in other countries, including families who came to the UK.
“It inspires me and fills me with happiness because they send me little films: where they live, where they stay,” she says.
“I cannot imagine that in this dark and terrible war our Ukrainian children have the chance to be cared for in such a beautiful place.”
Igor and Anastasia, both 21, dropped out of university in Ukraine to volunteer at the clinic “to do something useful for my country,” they say.
As he is lifted onto Igor’s shoulders, Yaroslav – whose brother is being treated for cancer at a nearby Polish hospital, accompanied by his mother – smiles widely.
It’s not yet clear where his family will ultimately go, but now he can relax and play safely.