A hospital alone shows what war is: Lviv's child cancer patients are in a race against time

A woman wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) stands in front of a graffiti painted on Lviv emergency hospital wall, to thanks the medical staff and healthcare fighting against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus on June 30, 2020. -
5 min read
Lviv
14 March, 2022
Despite threats from advancing Russian forces, many children with cancer have had to remain in hospital to receive treatment. But as more arrive in the safe haven of Lviv, hospitals are now overwhelmed, with the need to evacuate patients critical.

Fearing for their future, millions of Ukrainians have left their houses to avoid the threats that face a now war-torn country. 

Yet, while many have fled to neighbouring countries, some of Ukraine's most vulnerable have remained in the country due to medical necessities. 

"Over a hundred children with cancer need to be evacuated as soon as possible. The hospital is overloaded, and although we are coping with the immediate cure they need, it's hard to say for how long we can hold." Dr Roman Kizyma is a paediatrician at the Regional Children’s Specialised Clinical Hospital, a medical facility in Lviv that treats kids with cancer and terminal illnesses.

"During peacetime, the hospital in Lviv usually treats between 20 to 50 young patients... However, in the last 15 days, the hospital has processed more than a hundred cases per week"

Many young patients have already experienced horrors of war, with scores of patients travelling for hours by train, bus and cars from the eastern part of the country through the threat of bombardment to reach Lviv.

Following the Russian invasion, the hospital has received hundreds of young cancer patients from other clinics in Ukraine. With an increasing lack of access to medicine as well as the impending threat of siege, it is now a race against time to evacuate them.

A mother tends to her child who is undergoing cancer treatment in the bomb shelter of the Oncology ward at Okhmatdyt Children's Hospital on February 28, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
A mother tends to her child who is undergoing cancer treatment in the bomb shelter of the Oncology ward [Getty Images]

Dr Roman told The New Arab that every time the air raid sirens alarm, patients are taken to the hospital's shelter, except for those who can't be moved due to the chemotherapy they are receiving. He also mentioned how the stress of the situation has affected both the staff and patient's wellbeing and mental health.

During peacetime, the hospital in Lviv usually treats between 20 to 50 young patients, with some of them terminal

However, in the last fifteen days, the hospital has processed more than a hundred cases per week. As Russia continues its bombardment of other Ukrainian cities, this number is set to increase exponentially. 

Children including diagnosed with cancer receiving treatment are seen as they were moved to the basement floor or the shelter
As sirens ring out, children are moved to the basement floor or the shelter [Getty Images]

The high numbers have caused a shortage of medicaments that has forced doctors to provide only a basic form of chemotherapy. "We are in desperate need of international help and support to take them out of the country. Children can't wait for politics or ceasefire. They need to be evacuated now," Dr Roman pleaded to The New Arab

"Usually, I know each one of my patients, but right now it is impossible due to the high number of patients arriving at the centre. The turnover is so fast that I can't remember their names," Dr Roman added.

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The prolonged stress has affected families too. Cancer, when coupled with the conflict, has split families apart. Many parents prefer to stay at the bedside of their children, whilst siblings and extended family flee abroad. 

Halyna is the mother of Alexander, a ten-year-old boy from Kyiv affected by blood cancer and currently undergoing chemotherapy. "Despite Russia's invasion, I need to be strong for my son. I'm here to support him because this is what a mother does. Alexander is a strong kid, and he will overcome all the difficulties and pain he is facing. I'm confident that I can bring my boy home very soon."

"The 50 mile trip from Lviv to the Polish border town of Medyka now takes up to 6 hours due to traffic jams and security concerns"

Lviv has become a critical hub for humanitarian assistance and medical stockpiles for the Ukrainian population and the resistance effort. The city has already welcomed more than two million internally displaced citizens so far, with many fearing that Lviv is now the last safe haven for Ukrainians fleeing the advancing Russian forces. 

Natalia Onipko is the President of Zaporuka Charitable Foundation, a Ukrainian NGO that works closely with Lviv Regional Children’s Specialized Clinical Hospital, and has supported the hospital with evacuation efforts.

As Russian forces advance westwards, the need to evacuate all patients is essential [Getty Images]
As Russian forces advance westwards, the need to evacuate all patients is essential [Getty Images]

"Our first concern as an NGO is to find the best options to help move young patients abroad in a way that doesn't deteriorate their condition. They have been already rushed to Lviv from other cities' hospitals overnight, with some arriving alone because we couldn't reach the parents."

She added, "We organise as many buses as we can to take children out of Lviv, but every patient needs to be accompanied by a staff member, and any transfer needs to be scheduled in advance."

The 50 mile trip from Lviv to the Polish border town of Medyka now takes up to six hours due to traffic jams and security concerns.

Hopefully, the majority of young cancer patients will be moved to the hospital in the Polish town of Rzeszow, while some will be transferred to other medical facilities across Europe. 

Natalia concluded by calling upon the international community to assist their plight. Since the start of the conflict, Lviv hospital staff and volunteers have worked tirelessly to evacuate the patients. "They deserve to fight their battle against cancer with dignity, and without concern for their safety."

Nino Orto is a freelance journalist who specialises in the analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He is the editor-in-chief of Osservatorio Mashrek which provides insight and analysis on the Middle East

Follow him on Twitter: @OsservatMashrek