In one of the most complicated evacuations likely ever managed from a war zone, 73 Ukrainian children suffering from cancer were rescued from besieged cities around the country and driven across the border into Poland on Tuesday.
The sick kids – along with their mothers and siblings, 173 people in all – reached the border in a police-escorted convoy of four buses and seven ambulances. The majority had been evacuated from the main children’s hospital in Kyiv, the war-battered capital, while others had been rescued from increasingly dire situations in front-line cities such Zaporizhia, Odesa, Mykolayiv and Chernihiv.
The eight children and their moms from Chernihiv had been in particular distress, having spent most of the previous 12 days hiding in a basement bomb shelter as the Chernihiv Regional Children’s Hospital ran dangerously low on food and medicines, including painkillers, while Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces bombarded the city.
“It’s sad that we have to leave Ukraine, but there is no choice because the children must finish their treatment,” said Yana Vorobyova, the mother of two-year-old Nikita, who suffers from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Ms. Vorobyova spoke to The Globe and Mail by phone as the emergency convoy approached the Rava-Ruska crossing to Poland. A few minutes later, she and Nikita smiled and waved farewell as the yellow school bus they were travelling in passed under the last Ukrainian flag before the border.
The ambulances in the convoy were necessary for children who could not sit up. There was also one case each of patients contagious with COVID-19 and chicken pox who needed to be isolated from the other kids.
“We were saying today this must be the Guinness World Record, because we think there was never such a convoy of children with cancer. We called it the exodus,” said Yulia Nogovitsyna, who before the war was the program director of Tabletochki, a charitable foundation that supports families of children with cancer.
These days, Ms. Nogovitsyna is a full-time evacuation manager. Tuesday’s convoy was the third she’s overseen from Lviv after two previous efforts that each saw between 40 and 50 children, plus their moms, taken to Poland. The next convoy, scheduled for Friday, will carry dozens of new arrivals, including 17 kids who arrived at the Western Ukrainian Specialized Children’s Medical Center in Lviv on Tuesday after escaping the shattered eastern city of Kharkiv.
“Childhood cancer, sick kids, is now the most organized evacuation system for civilians. Just 15 minutes ago, there was a phone call with the Ministry of Health of Ukraine. They want us to share our expertise so that they can do something similar for adults,” Ms. Nogovitsyna said.
Roman Kizyma, the director of pediatric oncology at the Western Ukrainian centre, which is a hub for the countrywide evacuation effort, said it was “frustrating” to acknowledge that Ukrainian hospitals could no longer care for their own citizens amid widespread shortages of medicine and even cleaning supplies caused by the 13-day-old war.
“We have to admit that we are saving them still. We can’t treat them here in the high-quality settings we had before,” he said. “We can’t treat hundreds of new patients at one time. There is no hospital in the world that can do this, even in New York or at Toronto’s SickKids.”
The young patients from Chernihiv were evacuated by bus on Saturday on the last open road out of the city, a route that was unsafe just 24 hours later.
After travelling on backroads to Kyiv, they reached the Okhmadyt children’s hospital on Sunday, where the children spent the night under observation. On Monday morning, they were taken, along with patients from Okhmadyt, to Lviv on a special train car reserved for the young cancer sufferers.
The group of 73 spent Monday night at the children’s hospital in Lviv, then headed to the border. After crossing into Poland, they were taken to Unicorn Marian Wilemski Clinic in Bocheniec.
There, they were to be assessed by doctors again. Those in need of urgent care would remain in Poland, while those stable enough to travel onward would be sent to waiting hospitals elsewhere in Europe and North America – including Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children – that have agreed to treat the kids free of cost.
Ms. Vorobyova said she was leaving with deeply mixed feelings. She was relieved that Nikita was getting out and could continue his treatment, but deeply worried about her elderly mother who remained in Chernihiv, where dozens of civilians have been killed by Russian shelling over the past week.
“We just hope that Ukraine will be safe and that it will remain our home and that we can come back to it,” she said. “My mother is still there with no one to support her. She is hiding in a school, trying to deal with the situation on her own.”
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Ms. Vorobyova made a video appeal last week from the basement of the Chernihiv hospital that was watched more than 100,000 times on The Globe’s website and social media. Three of the 11 young cancer patients remain trapped in the hospital after their parents chose to remain close to their families in Chernihiv rather than joining the risky evacuation.
“It was kind of surreal for everyone, because you refuse to believe this is really happening,” Ms. Vorobyova said of the 12 days she and Nikita spent living under shelling. At one point, she said, a shell destroyed the building next to the hospital, shaking walls in the cancer ward. “We thought it was going to collapse on us.”
An earlier attempt to evacuate the group from Chernihiv failed last week because Ukrainian soldiers ordered the bus to return to the hospital, saying it was too dangerous for civilians to be on the road.
Serhiy Zosimenko, the director of Evum, a non-profit organization that supports the cancer ward in Chernihiv, said the group was fortunate to finally get out. “It was really scary, but it was the only opportunity to escape.”