Four Ukrainian children with cancer arrived Monday at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to resume their treatments disrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They were accompanied by 10 family caregivers and siblings.
The kids, ranging in ages from 9 months to 9 years old, are among more than 600 critically ill children evacuated over the last four weeks in a humanitarian effort known as SAFER Ukraine, in which St. Jude has played a major role from the outset of the war. The evacuees have been gradually placed in advanced cancer treatment centers, first throughout Europe, and now stretching into Canada and the U.S.
The patients arriving at St. Jude, their family caregivers and siblings — a total of 14 people — are the first to reach the U.S.
“Since its founding, the singular mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has been to find cures and save children’s lives,” said St. Jude National Outreach Director, Marlo Thomas, daughter of St. Jude founder, Danny Thomas. “As we witness desperately ill children fleeing their homelands in terror, gripping the hands of their mothers and carrying their diseases with them, we renew our vow to embrace and protect the lives of these helpless children with the full power of our medical expertise and the unyielding compassion of our hearts.”
The young patients along with their family caregivers and siblings left a Polish triage center at dawn Monday via a U.S. Government-operated medical transport aircraft while the rest of the clinic was still asleep. They departed Poland at 5 a.m. and flew for more than 10 hours and over 5,200 miles across Scandinavia, stopped to refuel in Iceland and routed through Dulles International in Washington, D.C., before finally arriving Monday evening in Memphis, the home of St. Jude.
On a shuttle to Memphis International Airport, a translator asked to greet the families silently practiced his Ukranian. It had gotten a bit rusty in the 31 years since he’d left Kyiv, then part of the former Soviet Union, to emigrate to Memphis. The translator, Yuri Yanishevski, an ALSAC employee, practiced Ukranian words and greetings, reminding himself not to allow English to slip in. Waiting in the executive terminal, he helped translate welcoming messages and orientation procedures and documents to share with the families.
St. Jude will spend the week evaluating the patients’ treatment needs, settling families into housing and providing entire families with psychological support and counseling to help address social, emotional and cultural needs as they begin to rebuild their lives so far from home. St. Jude educators are also developing school curriculum for the patients and their siblings.
They'll get a visit Friday from Dr. Jill Biden, First Lady of the United States.
“The work of St. Jude in Ukraine reflects the hospital’s ongoing commitment to ensure children with cancer have access to lifesaving care, no matter where they live,” said St. Jude President and CEO James R. Downing, M.D. “Our promise to children with catastrophic diseases extends around the globe, and we are honored to play a part in helping these families move to safety to continue their children’s treatment.”
The children transported Monday represent a small proportion of the more than 1,500 children whose cancer treatment has been interrupted and who, even amid a pandemic and with compromised immune systems, were forced to flee their homes, according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.
The evacuation effort results from round-the-clock coordination by St. Jude and ALSAC, its fundraising and awareness organization, working alongside a long-established network of hospital and foundation partners. Each of the evacuated children and families made harrowing journeys, fleeing bombed villages and ravaged city centers in secret convoys that ferried them to safety in nearby Poland where they were evaluated, then moved on to hospitals that agreed to continue their treatment.
Those preliminary evaluations matched required treatment to medical centers and ensured the medically fragile children could safely tolerate international travel. Evacuations of critically ill children from Ukraine continue, some of them arriving in the United Kingdom and Canada last week. It is uncertain if others will be sent to St. Jude.
Within hours of the invasion of Ukraine, St. Jude set up a command center to help manage information and coordinate the needs of its partners on the ground. Early efforts had focused on providing logistical support and basic supplies to hospitals —extension cords, batteries, lights, food — as they scrambled to shelter patients in basements while air raid sirens blared. But the rapidly escalating war forced St. Jude and its partners to hatch evacuation plans instead.
Many of the children undergoing cancer treatment require complex, consistent treatment, including intravenous drips of chemotherapy and antibiotics, so transporting them had to be done carefully in order to avoid life-threatening infections. Facilitating travel and evacuations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic further complicated the safety of transporting children whose immune systems were already severely compromised.
Dr. Asya Agulnik, who for the last two weeks had worked with colleagues from St. Jude, ALSAC Global teams and their partners in the region to coordinate convoys to the Unicorn Marian Wilemski Clinic in Poland where they were initially evaluated, accompanied the families on their flight to the U.S.
“St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is the result of millions of people coming together to help find cures and ensure kids with cancer and other life-threatening diseases have a chance to grow up,” said Richard C. Shadyac Jr., president and CEO of ALSAC. “We are uniquely positioned to help children now and in the future thanks to our supporters and the collective efforts of hundreds of people all over the world working together on initiatives like this one.”