MEMPHIS — Among the millions of displaced Ukrainians are thousands of sick children who could no longer be treated there. More than 400 Ukrainian pediatric cancer patients passed through Poland on their way to medical centers in other countries.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Marija Pyzhyk was mainly worried about her 5-year-old daughter, Khrystyna, who was being treated for a brain tumor. The family lived in Lviv, a western city near Poland, far from the rockets raining down in the east.
Soon, however, Pyzhyk was informed that the hospital was running out of medicine to treat her daughter; she should be evacuated immediately for treatment in another country, the doctor told her.
“I had really believed that we could continue our medical treatment in Ukraine,” recalls Pyzhyk.
Khrystyna’s condition, the optic glioma, a most common cancer in young children, can lead to blindness and even death without consistent treatment to shrink or stabilize the tumor. Khrystyna needs daily oral chemotherapy.
On March 16, Pyzhyk, Khrystyna and her son, Sergei, 10, said goodbye to her husband, Volodymyr, and boarded a bus for Poland, where they joined several other evacuated families with children. sick. While other families were directed to hospitals across Europe, Pyzhyk and her children were told they would be airlifted to the United States.
“We are so far from family and friends and our homeland,” Pyzhyk said at a hospital here, where her daughter is now a patient. She didn’t hesitate, she says, because Khrystyna’s life depended on it.
Khrystyna was among eight children from Ukraine who arrived in late March at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a private donor-funded childhood cancer institution. The hospital has set up a triage clinic in Poland to identify children in need of care and place them in partner hospitals, mainly in Europe.
“If all these children stayed in Ukraine, they were going to die of their disease, the complication of treating their disease, or the war,” said Dr. James Downing, CEO of St. Jude.
Treating childhood cancer requires a rapid succession of high-intensity drugs, he said. “Any interruption of treatment greatly increases the risk of failure, relapse and ultimately death from the disease. It’s a matter of timing.”
Six days after leaving Ukraine, the Pyzhyks settled into a two-bedroom apartment at Target House, the Memphis hospital residential facility, with two suitcases and two small bags.
After a visit to the hospital, during which Khrystyna received the necessary vaccinations before starting her oral therapy, Dr Ibrahim Qaddoumi asked his Ukrainian patient what the Barbie doll she received at the hospital was cooking . “Ukrainian borscht,” replied an interpreter.
On a later outing to an international market with two other families, Pyzhyk searched for buckwheat and sour yogurt. As they prepared to pay, the market owner said they didn’t need to pay. “I lived through the war. Two of them,” he said.
Pyzhyk regularly prepares Ukrainian dishes in their apartment. But Khrystyna and Sergei mostly enjoy eating at the hospital cafe, where they can order cheeseburgers, mac and cheese and even fried catfish, a Southern classic. Their favorite is the chicken strips and fries.
Khrystyna is aware that Ukraine is at war, her mother said. “There’s no way she doesn’t know what’s going on. She’s been exposed to air raid warnings,” she said. “But I don’t think she knows what that means.”
Back home in Lviv, her husband is worried about what is happening to his family on the other side of the world, but he said in a phone call that his daughter had been brave throughout her years of treatment. “My daughter is a strong personality,” he said. “She’s a real Ukrainian.”
By the end of the second week, the reality that they weren’t on vacation and home was far away began to set in.
“Are we going home today?” Khrystyna asked her mother at dinner, only to burst into tears when she heard the answer.