The doctor’s stress levels are through the roof. It’s a dangerous journey for children who need palliative care under the best of circumstances. Now 12 of them are doing it in a war.
Small, frail bodies are hoisted for the last time into the arms of weary mothers as they step off the bus. Some are kindly handed over to waiting doctors and nurses. For others, their health is too delicate and requires extra help to transport them safely on the train that will take them to Poland.
Medical staff are hoping to prevent one of the children from feeling even more pain, emotionally or physically. One of the children is in such poor health that doctors tell us he may not survive the trip.
The medical team asks us to stay away, not to film or try to talk to anyone until the children are stabilized. One by one, they gently lowered onto 12 small beds placed a few centimeters off the ground.
For days, Szuszkiewicz, a pediatrician and palliative care specialist, fielded phone calls from desperate parents of children stranded in the Kharkiv region. The call for help from the parents came as bombs fell around them. A mother cried out that without a ventilator and painkillers her child would die.
“I could only tell her that if she found a way to get to Lviv (in western Ukraine), I could help her,” Szuszkiewicz tells us, tears streaming down her face and her voice gripping. .
She still doesn’t know if the mother and child are alive.
A scary journey
On board the train to Poland, Ira caresses her daughter’s fingers.
“Yes darling, everything will be fine,” she told six-year-old Victoria. She then pauses. “I guess everything will be fine.”
Victoria suffers from cerebral palsy and is unable to walk. His mother Ira told us it was a “miracle” that they were able to get on the train. “It was incredibly hard to get out,” she says.
To board the medical train, Ira first had to travel from his village outside Kharkiv to the city of Lviv, where the families were to meet. Ira cradled Victoria in her arms for most of the three days to get there, through the panic of others trying to flee and trains so crowded she couldn’t even put her down.
Victoria breaks out into a huge smile that lights up her eyes every time she hears his name, even if it’s through her mother’s tears.
“She smiles at everyone. Because on the way, we only met kind and compassionate people.” will go said.
The trip made Ira fall even more in love with her country, as if that was even possible. This makes leaving even more difficult, she says.
“Even when you don’t expect help, everyone helped. They (foreigners on the train trip to Lviv) gave us food, drinks, the roof of our heads, they accompanied us, guided us.”
“I don’t know how my legs took me,” says Ira. “And that’s only because she (Victoria) is strong herself. She helps me, gives me a bit of strength, I guess.”
“She won’t live without me. I know that,” she adds.
A hospice on wheels
There are nearly 200 children in hospice care in the Kharkiv region alone, according to Szuszkiewicz.
Initially, Szuszkiewicz tried to arrange a train or land transport to Kharkiv itself. But that turned out to be impossible. It was too dangerous, the city was practically under siege. Instead, the families had to find a way to get to Lviv, before she could arrange transportation to safety in Poland.
She was in contact with local hospice directors who compiled a list of those who wanted to leave and those who realistically could. Parents of children on ventilators had no choice – their children would not survive the long journey. Others were too ill to attempt it.
Some have decided to give it a shot anyway. Szuszkiewicz says some parents told him it was better to die on the road than under a bomb.
Szuszkiewicz was the main organizer, mobilizing a network of medical professionals inside Ukraine to help transport everyone to the meeting point in Lviv. About fifty people were evacuated in total.
The Polish government and the Central Clinical Hospital in Warsaw converted several train carriages into a makeshift medical ward, including an operating room.
Szuszkiewicz says “as soon as I got there and walked up to that bus and said, ‘we’re here, soon you’ll be saved, we’ll get you out of this war country… You can relax now'” she was greeted with a sense of disbelief and relief.
Now, “there are many words of gratitude, there is joy, there is hope for life,” Szuszkiewicz says.
“Each of these relatives says that they only left their city of Kharkiv temporarily, that each of them will come back when there is a chance, that they will rebuild this city from scratch as soon as the war comes there. will stop, as soon as they can live there again. They say it with so much love for their country.
The doctor is no stranger to gratitude: she has heard parents thank her for saving their children. But this time, she says, it’s different, the words have a different depth.
As the train crosses Ukraine on its way to Poland, Ira receives a video from a neighbor in Kharkiv.
“They said the whole city was destroyed in an hour,” she said, her voice shaking and her eyes filling with tears.
“There’s not a single house. Do you understand? Not a single house. It’s just a pile of bricks and that’s it. It’s not a war, it’s annihilation. annihilation of the people.”
Ira tries to call her husband, her mother, her father, her sister. Nobody picks up.
“What happens inside a person when their whole life falls apart…it doesn’t become someone else’s life, it just…” her voice trails off. “We just don’t want to believe it.”
As the train pulls into Warsaw, the flashing blue lights of ambulances reflect through its windows. They’re not reporting a medical emergency, and it’s not in response to a bomb. It’s a sign that they’ve arrived, saving what’s left of their children’s lives.