For 10 years, the Herosi Foundation, a pediatric cancer charity in Poland, didn’t have a single paid employee. Every groszy — every penny — went to the needs of a child. The foundation was tiny and staffed with only volunteers.
Then Malgorzata Dutkiewicz became its first director in 2019 and brought a bold new vision for the kind of impact she thought the charity could have. She wasn’t interested in buying a teddy bear for a dying child, she said. She wanted to give him drugs so he could live.
What Malgorzata could not have imagined is that in just three years, her foundation — the one with big dreams of increasing survival rates of children with cancer in Poland — would become the linchpin in an international evacuation effort to save Ukrainian children following a Russian invasion.
Not long after the first bombs fell, colleagues from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and ALSAC reached out to Malgorzata to ask if Herosi would help. St. Jude and ALSAC, its fundraising and awareness organization, had set up a virtual command center and were mobilizing members of the St. Jude Global Alliance, established partners across the region.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians were headed west to the Polish border. And another Global Alliance member in Ukraine — Tabletochki Foundation — was starting to evacuate children.
Of course Herosi would help, Malgorzata said. No question.
Malgorzata and the only other Herosi staff member — a junior fundraising specialist who had just started her job in November 2021 — would help coordinate the logistics and transportation of hundreds of critically ill children with cancer who had escaped Russian bombs in their homeland and fled across the border to Poland with only what they could carry.
“It all started first with smaller groups, finding groups and putting order to what is happening on the other side of the border,” Malgorzata said. “Supporting the people and informing them we will take care of them so that they should not be anxious, and they should not be afraid. And they should not try to flee on their own.”
They galvanized Polish foundations, collaborated with medical groups, organized their own volunteers and engaged local companies — all of them ready to help when they called.
Dr. Wojciech Młynarski, for example, representing the Polish Pediatric Oncology and Hematology Association, was key in allocating patients to the right clinics in Poland and securing Polish medical staff for the patients while they were in country. And ALSAC flew a staff member to Poland to help with logistics.
“They have all been a very valuable piece of the chain — it is their work, their heart and their success, too,” Malgorzata said. “You need someone on the other end of the phone line that you can call.”
For the past six weeks, St. Jude Global partners in Ukraine and Poland have arranged buses, trains, cars and ambulances on both sides of the border to transport children and their families to safety throughout Europe, Canada and the United States, including eight patients and 21 family members who arrived at the St. Jude campus in Memphis.
And Malgorzata herself, with the help of a contact in Poland’s Ministry of Education, negotiated the use of a 190-room hotel that was converted to a triage center called Unicorn Marian Wilemski Clinic. There, young patients are medically evaluated, fed, provided rooms to rest and recover from their exhausting trip through Ukraine and across the Polish border. They are then sent to the best pediatric oncology programs in Europe and North America, with hospital coordination and military transports, all facilitated by St. Jude.
“The more patients arrived, the less space and place we had in our Polish clinics,” Malgorzata said. “So, thanks to (the) Global Alliance and St. Jude Global, and the connections and the openness and the willingness of other European clinics we were able to very quickly find support in western Europe.”
It’s easier to work when everyone is fighting for the same cause, she said.
“It brings you strength, but also it tells you, you cannot stop. You cannot be the chain that will open the loop. You cannot break.”
A Quick Shift
In the days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Malgorzata’s mind was on doughnuts.
Her only other employee, Karolina Bauer, had planned a massive fundraising campaign to coincide with Fat Thursday — February 24 this year — when Poles feast on paczki, or Polish doughnuts, before the traditional fast in the weeks leading up to Easter. Fifty celebrities across the country were poised to share in the social media fun: Eat one less doughnut and give to Herosi instead.
But within hours of the launch, it was clear the world’s attention was elsewhere: Russian President Vladimir Putin had authorized an invasion of Ukraine, Poland’s neighbor, and Russian forces were firing missiles and artillery in major cities, including the capital of Kyiv.
The big impact they’d hoped for with the fundraiser would have to wait.
Instead, the coming weeks would prove a monumental task. And in this extraordinary international emergency with life-and-death consequences, the skills of these two women would be tested in ways they never imagined: cold-calling ambulance services. Rousing volunteers. Pulling every string they knew. And calling in every favor they had.
“I have literally no power except for my beautiful smile,” Malgorzata said. “But I am not young. Thank God they don’t see me over the phone. … I don’t know why they trust us, believe us, listen to us and they do things that we ask them to do.”
What started with the evacuation of small groups turned into large convoys with long lines of ambulances and buses and eventually to convoys by train.
In the first week of the war, both women barely ate or slept. They were constantly on their phones — sometimes 20 hours a day. They had to arrange transportation, lodging. And sometimes they had less than 24 hours to do it.
It was as if they’d received instructions to send 50 people to the moon, Karolina said. “Because this is how much experience we had,” she explained.
Those first few days were chaos, especially with the first convoy.
“We knew, already, people were working on the border with the transportation,” Karolina said. “So, we had to fish them out and see if anyone could help, but it was really very much like, ‘Could you help us? Can you? Maybe? Calling. Oh, we don’t know. ‘How does it look? Who’s there?’”
They separated groups set for clinics where patients needed to be sent. Blood cancers in this group, solid tumors in another. They separated them again when someone tested positive for COVID.
They felt the enormous weight of the responsibility.
“What if we do not manage?” Malgorzata wondered. “What happens if the evening comes and we don’t have transportation? Somehow, all those miracles always happened. I don’t know, but we managed and the children survived.”
But soon, patients who were initially assigned to Polish hospitals for triage were pushing clinical staffs toward capacity.
That’s when Malgorzata called all her contacts to scout a place where children could go to be triaged and then sent on within 24 to 48 hours. It needed to be central, not too far north, relatively close to the border. Within two hours, her contact at the Ministry of Education had found the perfect place in Bocheniec. It became the Unicorn Marian Wilemski Clinic.
The women’s nerves were frazzled. Malgorzata barely stopped — even when her husband brought a plate of food. And Karolina could only find rest on the floor of her young children’s bedroom.
“I had to listen to them and hear them breathing,” she said.
In all these weeks, Karolina has only broken down once.
She got a call from someone at a refugee center about 30 miles from the Ukrainian border. There was a girl, 7 years old, an oncology patient, the mother said. They’d fled on their own and the girl was getting sicker. She needed an ambulance.
Karolina called an ambulance, but when the driver arrived he was told the child was already gone. So, he left. But Karolina kept getting requests for another ambulance because the child was still there.
This went on for four hours.
Karolina was in Warsaw, 150 to 185 miles from the refugee shelter.
All she could do was call again.
It took the same ambulance three trips before the child with cancer was finally located.
“I was so tired,” Karolina said. “I didn’t have time with my children. They were running back and forth and asking, ‘Mommy, what’s happening?’ And I was constantly — I was obsessed with that phone.”
She couldn’t help but think of her own daughter, who’s also 7.
“I called Malgorzata, and I said, ‘This is it. I’m broken. I’m on the floor, crying.’ And that’s what I did for like half an hour.”
That 7-year-old Ukrainian child is now safe, Karolina said, in another country getting the treatment she needs. But Karolina will forever remember her.
A Big Job
To date, more than 730 Ukrainian children with cancer and their families have been evacuated, and Herosi has been a big part of that effort along with St. Jude, ALSAC and fellow partners in the Global Alliance. The transportation and logistics process in Poland has become more like a well-oiled machine. Malgorzata and Karolina know who to call and what to do when they hit a snag.
Most of the stable patients who could travel have left Ukraine at this point. Malgorzata now expects more severely ill children to come, or those who are at greater medical risk.
“We are better organized so I think we are better prepared to receive them,” she said.
All the while, they still have the responsibility to their Polish patients. And yet, they will continue until every Ukrainian child with cancer is safely across the border — or until the war ends.
“I want (people) to know that with the energy and the love among many, we can save all the lives,” she said. “And I think this is the most important thing. … You cannot imagine, every day I go to sleep, and I think to myself, ‘I am a piece of sand.’ I know I am doing a big job. But you know, it is unbelievable what I am taking part in.”
A piece of sand, an unbroken chain, an alliance of global partners in untold numbers.
And two stubborn, organized women in Poland with cell phones.
That’s what it took to help save the lives of more than 730 children.