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Fighting for his life, far from Ukraine

A 5-year-old Ukrainian girl with a brain tumor was one of many children brought to the United States for treatment after Russia invaded their country.

MEMPHIS — When Russia invaded Ukraine, Marija Pyzhyk was still mainly worried about her 5-year-old daughter, Khrystyna, who was being treated for a brain tumor. The family lived in Lviv, the western city near Poland, far from the rockets raining down in the east.

Soon, however, Mrs. Pyzhyk was informed that the hospital was running out of medicine to treat her daughter; she should be evacuated immediately for treatment in another country, the doctor told her.

“I really believed that we could continue our medical treatment in Ukraine,” recalls Ms. Pyzhyk.

Khrystyna’s condition, the optic glioma, a most common cancer in young children, can lead to blindness and even death without consistent treatment to shrink or stabilize the tumor. Khrystyna needs daily oral chemotherapy.

On March 16, Mrs. Pyzhyk, Khrystyna and her son, Sergei, 10, bade farewell to her husband, Volodymyr, and boarded a bus for Poland, where they joined several other evacuated families with sick children. While other families were directed to hospitals across Europe, Ms Pyzhyk and her children were told they would be airlifted to the United States.

“We are so far from family and friends and our homeland,” Ms Pyzhyk said this week at a hospital in Memphis, where her daughter is now a patient. She didn’t hesitate, she says, because Khrystyna’s life depended on it.

Among the millions of displaced Ukrainians, there are thousands of sick children who could no longer be treated there. More than 400 Ukrainian pediatric cancer patients passed through Poland on their way to medical centers in other countries.

Khrystyna was among eight children from Ukraine who arrived in late March at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a private donor-funded childhood cancer institution. The hospital has set up a triage clinic in Poland to identify children in need of care and place them in partner hospitals, mainly in Europe.

“If all these children stayed in Ukraine, they were going to die of their illness, the complication of treating their illness, or the war,” Dr. James Downing, chief executive of St. Jude, said in an interview.

Treating childhood cancer requires a rapid succession of high-intensity drugs, he said. “Any interruption of treatment greatly increases the risk of failure, relapse and ultimately death from the disease. It’s a matter of timing. »

Six days after leaving Ukraine, the Pyzhyks settled into a two-bedroom apartment at Target House, the Memphis hospital residential facility, with two suitcases and two small bags.

After a visit to the hospital, during which Khrystyna received the necessary vaccinations before starting her oral therapy, Dr. Ibrahim Qaddoumi asked his little Ukrainian patient what the Barbie doll she had received at the hospital was cooking. hospital. “Ukrainian borscht,” replied an interpreter.

On a later outing to an international market with two other families, Ms Pyzhyk searched for buckwheat and sour yogurt. As they prepared to pay, the market owner said they didn’t need to pay. “I lived through the war. Two of them,” he said.

At their next stop, an American-style supermarket, they were blown away by the wide array of products. At the deli counter, workers offered them samples of salami. “Take your time,” said one employee.

Ms. Pyzhyk regularly prepares Ukrainian dishes in their apartment. But Khrystyna and Sergei mostly enjoy eating at the hospital cafe, where they can order cheeseburgers, mac and cheese and even fried catfish, a Southern classic. Their favorite is the chicken strips and fries.

Khrystyna is aware that Ukraine is at war, her mother said. “There’s no way she doesn’t know what’s going on. She was exposed to air raid warnings,” she said. “But I don’t think she knows what that means.”

Back home in Lviv, her husband is worried about what is happening to his family on the other side of the world, but he said in a phone call that his daughter had been brave throughout her years of treatment. “My daughter has a strong personality,” he said. “She’s a real Ukrainian.”

Khrystyna and Sergei have a close and tender bond. He is his sister’s protector, holding her hand when they enter the hospital, go to the doctor, or sit down for English lessons.

Sergei said that he loved his sister from birth. “I felt I had a new friend for life,” he said. “I take care of her, but sometimes we argue like normal people. It never takes us too long to become friends again.

He is acutely aware of his sister’s vulnerability. The glioma can affect the eye, and Khrystyna’s left eyelid is half-closed; the area above his eye is slightly bulging.

Shortly after their arrival, Ms Pyzhyk took her children and Marya, another child from Ukraine, on their first trip to a zoo. They lingered near giraffes, lions and zebras, amazed.

But by the end of the second week, the reality that they weren’t on vacation and home was very far away began to set in.

“Are we going home today?” Khrystyna asked her mother at dinner, only to burst into tears when she heard the answer. Sergei tried to comfort his sister by gently massaging her back.

nytimes Gt

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