On evenings and weekends, Yuri and Lana Yanishevski sit across from each other at the dining table in their suburban Memphis home, their laptop computers open, translating medical records of children with cancer fleeing war-torn Ukraine.
Each file tells a story, of children fighting for their lives on two fronts, out of medicine and holed up in damp basements of hospitals, bombs dropping around them, or making panicked, treacherous journeys to safety from a place the couple knows well.
“Their survival is questionable as it is,” Yuri said. Now they face the unimaginable.
Lana, a pediatrician, and Yuri, an engineer who works at ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, are from Kyiv, Ukraine, emigrating from what was then the Soviet Union in 1991.
The couple wakes at 5 a.m. to frantically check their phones for messages from loved ones in Ukraine. Some friends and family have gotten out safely, but others have had to stay in their homeland.
They are glued to the news, horrified by the brutal attacks on civilians, the neighborhoods they knew growing up ravaged by bombing, and a missile attack near Babyn Yar, a Holocaust memorial park where they laid flowers on their wedding day.
“We never felt helpless in our life,” Lana said. Faced with any problem, the couple could fix it. Find a solution. Make a plan. Not this time.
“In this case,” Yuri said, “we are sitting here, and we can do nothing.”
Until a few days after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion when a parent of one of Lana’s patients, who works at St. Jude, told her about the desperate need for translators.
Working with a network of partners established over decades, St. Jude and ALSAC have helped evacuate hundreds of Ukrainian children with cancer to countries across Europe and North America where they can be treated in safety.
Lana is part of a messaging group of translators and doctors from around the globe, including Ukraine. The time differences mean someone is always available to translate records or answer questions.
Lana runs each medical record through Google Translate and then meticulously goes through it, line by line, assuring the translation from Ukrainian to English is accurate and translating medical terms and abbreviations the translation service can’t decipher.
Yuri provides technical support, converting documents into more readable versions. Some are pictures of pages snapped quickly with cell phones cameras and can’t be fed into Google Translate. Lana translates those, word-by-word, as quickly as she can.
She knows treatment can’t resume until doctors have those records. The patients’ parents may not speak the language - English, Polish, German, Italian, wherever they happen to land. Translators at the hospitals can help, but medical information is tricky.
“It has to be 100 percent accurate,” Yuri said. “There is no room for errors.”
Sometimes, there are requests to translate other documents, such as immigration information, from English into Ukrainian. Yuri translates those.
So far, the couple has translated records for 20 or so patients. Those children stay with them, adding to their worries.
“I can’t imagine what the kids and the parents are going through. It’s just heartbreaking that they have to deal with war,” Lana said.
“I wish I could do more.”
Leaving the former Soviet Union
For Yuri and Lana, the decision to leave the former Soviet Union had been easy. Life there seemed hopeless for the young Jewish couple.
The government of the Soviet Union had an unofficial policy of state atheism, and anti-Semitism was rampant.
Yuri was a straight-A student but even his stellar grades couldn’t get him into university because he was Jewish. “That’s how it was,” Yuri said. “If you’re Jewish, don’t even try.”
But his uncle had done some auto repair work for a top administrator at National Technical University of Ukraine, a top engineering school, who admitted Yuri. He graduated at the top of his class, but when he arrived at his first pick of jobs at the Soviet Academy of Science, he was told the job was no longer available.
“If you go to synagogue, and someone sees you there, and it gets reported to your place of work, you risk losing your job,” Yuri said.
It was the same for Lana, who had to go to Smolensk, Russia, for medical school until her father befriended an administrator at a medical school in Kyiv who arranged for her transfer after three years.
Lana and Yuri met in 1987, introduced by Lana’s friend who knew Yuri’s mother, who had asked her, “Do you have a good Jewish girl for my son?” Yuri and Lana married in 1988.
They lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment with Lana’s parents and likely always would. That’s how housing worked at the time.
Three years after they married, Yuri and Lana applied to the American Embassy to emigrate as political refugees. Lana was pregnant with their first child. They wanted a better life.
They left Kyiv in October 1991, just two months before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
They flew from Moscow to New York and then Memphis, where Lana’s brother lived, bringing Yuri’s parents, their belongings in duffel bags, and $200.
They were met at the airport by Lana’s brother, a rabbi, and a representative and volunteers from Jewish Family Service, which had arranged for them to move into a two-bedroom apartment all their own.
The apartment was filled with donated furniture, a refrigerator full of food and a mezuzah on the door. Lana and Yuri felt rich – and welcomed.
“It was unbelievable,” Yuri said. “It was the best thing ever that could happen to us.”
Jewish Family Service helped Yuri find his first engineering job, while Lana studied for her medical licensure exams and completed her residency at the University of Tennessee, including rotations at St. Jude, before joining a practice.
Yuri twice worked for St. Jude, developing software to support research and clinical departments, and managing information technology, before joining ALSAC in 2018.
Lana and Yuri marvel still at the kindness of strangers who became like family and helped them build an amazing new life here, where they could raise two sons without fear.
“This culture of volunteering didn’t exist in the former Soviet Union,” Yuri said. People could barely take care of their own. “It was everybody for themselves.”
Giving back through language of homeland
Now Yuri and Lana do whatever they can to help. “It’s contagious,” Yuri said.
“Whatever we can do to help those children, we should do it all.”
For each medical record they translate, Lana receives an email telling her when the child has arrived at a hospital, wherever it is.
“It’s incredible,” Lana said. She can imagine them, getting the treatment they need, and safe.
They are buoyed by the support around the world for Ukraine, the donations and humanitarian efforts. Hospitals in Poland and other nearby countries are overwhelmed, so Lana is hopeful more countries, including the United States, will take in Ukrainian refugees.
Life is better now for Jewish people in Ukraine. In recent decades, synagogues, Jewish schools and community centers have flourished. President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish.
Now many fear what has been gained could be changed by the war.
If young patients and their families from Ukraine come to St. Jude for treatment, Lana and Yuri will greet them and help them get settled.
“It’s very scary to be in a different country,” Lana said. She remembers what that was like. They will be there to help.
“We just want to show them warmth and for them to know we are supporting them, and we want to help,” Lana said. “We’ll provide clothes and food and our home and our hearts.”
They’ll wear T-shirts that say, “I stand with Ukraine,” hers in white and his grey. Lana’s fingernails are painted with blue and yellow polish, the colors of Ukraine’s flag.
Yuri will tell them they are safe.
“We want to give them the comfort to know they are in one of the greatest hospitals,” Yuri said, “and their children are getting the best possible care in the world.”