BOCHENIEC, Poland (AP) — Twenty-two-month-old Yeva Vakulenko had undergone four rounds of chemotherapy for leukemia at a hospital in Ukraine and then had a relapse. As she began to return for more treatment, Russia invaded, disrupting the doctors’ efforts to cure her.

The airstrikes forced the little girl to shelter in the basement of the hospital in the western city of Lviv for hours on end, making her feel even worse. She cried a lot and sought comfort from her grandmother, who cared for her after her parents had an accident that left her mother disabled with brain and leg injuries.

So when the doctors told Yeva’s grandmother that they could evacuate to Poland, she took the chance.

“It’s very difficult for children to go somewhere in the middle of the night and sit in the basement for a long time,” said Nadia Kryminec as she hugged her granddaughter, whose gentle smiles never hinted at the ordeal she endured. .

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“We were told she was in stable condition and we should try to go. Otherwise, she is simply doomed to death,” the grandmother said.

The little girl, who her grandmother says understands everything, is among more than 400 Ukrainian children with cancer who have been evacuated to a clinic in Poland. Doctors then place them in one of approximately 200 hospitals in 28 countries.

“We triage patients when they come to our center,” said Dr. Marcin Włodarski, a pediatric hematologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, who works at Marian Wilemski’s Unicorn Clinic in Bocheniec. , in central Poland.

Stable patients are quickly transferred from there to hospitals in other countries while those in worse condition are first stabilized in Polish hospitals, he said.

“Then they come back to us and can be sent on further trips,” Włodarski said.

Decisions must be made quickly because time is critical for young oncology patients.

Evacuations began immediately after Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24 and are a joint effort of St. Jude, the Polish Society of Pediatric Oncology and Hematology, Fundacja Herosi (Heroes Foundation ) from Poland and Tabletochki, a Ukrainian charity that defends children. with cancer.

Dr. Marta Salek, another St. Jude pediatric hematologist oncologist who is on staff at the Polish clinic, said the center receives a large number of patients and convoys arriving from Lviv through humanitarian corridors.

“Sometimes we can have convoys with only about 20 patients, but we can have up to 70 patients at a time and even more,” she said.

At the clinic, a large bin of white unicorn stuffed animals sits in a room, along with a wooden train, brightly colored balloons and other toys that children enjoy playing with.

More than 3 million people – around half of them children – have fled Ukraine as the country faces a brutal military attack by Russian forces that has targeted civilians. Of these, more than 2 million people have arrived in Poland, the largest of Ukraine’s neighbors to the west. A Polish health ministry official said on Friday the country was treating 1,500 refugees in hospitals, many of whom are suffering from hypothermia after their trip, and 840 of whom are children.

The World Health Organization said Friday that cancer is one of the main health problems resulting from the war. He said he supports the efforts of organizations that are “working against the clock to reconnect pediatric cancer patients with their treatments.”

“Cancer itself is a problem, but treatment interruptions, stress and risk of infection mean hundreds of children could die prematurely,” said Dr Roman Kizyma, head of the specialist children’s medical center. from Western Ukraine to Lviv, where pediatric oncology patients are. first stabilized before being sent across the border to Poland.

“We believe these are the indirect victims of this war,” Kizyma said in a WHO statement.

Among those at the clinic this week was Anna Riabiko, from Poltava, Ukraine, who was seeking treatment for her daughter Lubov, who has neuroblastoma.

“The treatment is currently impossible in Ukraine. Fights take place, there are no doctors, it is impossible to resort to surgery or chemotherapy. And even talk therapy is also unobtainable,” she said. “So we had to look for salvation somewhere.”

It’s not a step all parents have been able to take for their sick children, she said.

“A lot of sick children stayed there,” she said. “Because the parents were worried and didn’t want to go into the unknown.”

This story has been corrected to show that the spelling of the Lviv doctor’s last name is Kizyma, not Kizym.

Vanessa Gera reported from Warsaw.

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