A pediatric oncologist is racing against time to send scores of sick children out of Ukraine for medical aid.
Roman Kizyma: The first months of war, we didn’t have the weekdays, so we just worked seven days, 24 hours.
There are moments when I can work for three days without sleep. There are moments like when I, I cannot do anything for this day.
I had a very long period without my very small kids. And so when I met, in a couple of months, my younger son, so he didn’t recognize me. So compared to the people that suffered the atrocities in Bucha or European or Eastern Ukraine, this is nothing. But this wasn’t a good experience.
The main factor for myself is this feeling of responsibility.
Kizyma (to camera): So when you see a bald guy or girl in the hospital, that’s my patient.
If I just stop, I compromise the treatment of hundreds of children. And I think I’m not in the position to to end this.
Kizyma (in Ukrainian, to patient): Where is the problem? Where does it hurt? Show me.
Patient (in Ukrainian): Here.
Kizyma (in Ukrainian): Here? Okay. Do you want to show me your tongue? Okay.
Kizyma: My name is Roman Kizyma. I am pediatric oncologist, a medical doctor treating children with cancer. Now I’m the acting director of Western Ukrainian Specialized Children’s Medical Center, a huge, specialized hospital for severely ill children with cancer with other catastrophic diseases.
The war made the things for children with cancer and other catastrophic disease very difficult. You have to fight two wars: one against cancer, the other against the crazy Russian army shooting at you. It’s not only the physical unsafety, it's also the complete disruption at some point of medical logistics. So no drugs [are] coming to the hospital, no doctors or nurses [are] available in the direct hospital, the physical unsafety, the shelling of Ukrainian electricity infrastructure.
So sometimes we were black. All the hospital was black. No electricity.
Hospital staff member (in Ukrainian): And our doctors don’t know this, but...
Hospital staff member (in Ukrainian): Oh, everyone’s with flashlights.
[Hospital staff singing Ukrainian National Anthem]
Kizyma: This is a vulnerable group of patients. And when there is a kind of crisis, vulnerable group of people suffers the most because no one cares. Everyone trying to save themselves. So that’s why a lot of families, like, asked or decided or went by themselves to Europe with this project that we call SAFER Ukraine.
Before the war, I was just treating cancer. I transformed into someone coordinating the big groups of very sick children going here and there. So it means like one-and-a-half-thousand children out of Ukraine with cancer treated somewhere else. The team is ready to help these children, and we have the capacity. So that’s why this is a special hospital.
During two years before the start of the war, we were creating the new department, the Clinic of Pediatric Oncology and Stem Cell Transplant, here in this hospital.We opened this seven days before the start of the war, so we had a huge amount of patients going to be treated there. And we have to transform ourselves from oncologists to emergency doctors and relocate all our patients to to to the other countries.
So it was a huge blow for our level of work. And we have to abandon all these new structures that we created because you cannot perform transplants when you are getting shellings and shootings and all these children.
Kizyma (in Ukrainian): If it’s not urgent, then tomorrow, okay?
Hospital staff member (in Ukrainian): Okay.
Kizyma (in Ukrainian): If it’s urgent, I can look now.
Hospital staff member (in Ukrainian): Okay.
Kizyma: I feel so stressed. I feel like in a race against time. The relocation of a child with cancer from Ukraine to Western Europe is not something new. We did that even before the war, but [it] was like a couple of children per year. But how do you do that if you have 100 children with cancer coming to your hospital per night?
These are severely ill children. And for each of them, you should have a lot of medical staff to support each patient.
Nurse (in Ukrainian): Alright.
Kizyma: There is no hospital that can treat 1,500 children at one time from some country. So this is not possible.
Child (in Ukrainian): It’s cold.
Kizyma: That’s why we tried to use different criteria. First of all, we organized multistep approach with different hubs.
We got the requests from the families or the doctors from different cities of the east of Ukraine or Kyiv, the capital. The first hub is in Lviv. This hospital that can host any child of any severity. And if they cannot go further, we can treat them here for a long time or for a short time and then allocate them.
We created with our partners, with charities or the support for housing and the capacity for transportation. So we had a lot of volunteers meeting children in the railway station, carrying them out of there—carrying 20 patients out of a train in a railway station that is packed with people trying to go somewhere. We went only [as] five doctors to meet a huge convoy at the railway station, so we had to carry kids across the railways.
The next step was the hub in Poland. The thing was to cross the border was a lot of queues of people trying desperately to move out of Ukraine. So we used the diplomatic power of Polish consulates situated in Lviv. This was saving time for the severely ill kids because if they stayed for 10 or 20 hours in the queue, they would not leave it. So it was possible.
In the next hub there was a triage of the international team that came here to Poland and they formed a logistics. A huge hotel was transformed into a medical center in the middle of Poland. Children were arriving there, and they were triaged to different rooms and taken care by this group of international doctors.
Then they contacted their dedicated hospital throughout Europe and USA, and these hospitals and their government, they were transferring these kids to a specific hospital admitted by their team. In the worst phase, we had more than 150 children per week sent by this pathway. This was very hard.
Kizyma (in Ukrainian, to patient): You can pull it up a bit. Good.
Kizyma: My job was not to step into one, into one case.
So this was, I was oncologist, myself. So I tried just to not to step in each case more than like 10 minutes. So I used my previous experience to triage them.
Kizyma (in Ukrainian, to patient): Good. Can you smile? Can you smile and show your teeth? Good, well done.
During all these relocations, we lost two children. It’s Russians who were attacking them. Kids were from Kharkiv.
So it’s very close to the Russian border. That’s why during their very severe treatment phase, they had to be evacuated from their hospital, put into ordinary trains and they came to Lviv. Like, we literally had no choice. So we had to explain to the families, you decide what you do. You don’t go and we stay and try to do something here in Lviv during these air strikes, or you risk.
But at least, you know, you did everything to a child. So they risked and we failed. So this—both children died. Some of their doctors who helped us here, they came from the regions that were under attack. There is a sad story of our colleagues in Kyiv. One of their doctors, she was driving to her shift for the children with cancer.
She was hit directly by a Russian rocket in her car, and she was burned alive. Her name is Oksana Leontieva. And I think this event, it was very influential. So we realized how dangerous, dangerous the work is.
Woman holding baby (in Ukrainian, singing): Hands made some porridge and gave to Darynka. Running to get some porridge, yes.
Kizyma: But there were a lot of happy situations. And I visited a lot of these hospitals afterwards, like in fall, in the winter, that year. And the people were happy. The children were happy.
Hospital staff member (in Ukrainian, to a child playing): Who are you treating?
Kizyma: And sometimes I felt like—I was going through a hospital in Europe and, like, the first room, my patient, the second room, my patient, the third room, my patient.
So I was feeling like I’m the part of the staff of that hospital. And people were asking me, like, “What should we do with your patients?” So mostly these are the good stories and the feedbacks where, like, people are very grateful to all these countries because they felt like they were in home. During last year, even as a pediatric oncologist, I helped to build the facilities.
So I’ll try to do that as a director, but not only for pediatric oncology. For example, this will be the intensive care unit, the huge project within this year. So some people, like, outside of Ukraine, it’s like, “How can you build during the wartime?” You can. Why not? The life still goes on, and we have to have these places for these severely ill children that will look better.
So that’s what I am focused now to to do that. This is a network that try to balance itself. So this is a never-ending process. I hope this will work.