The medical team is not entirely sure what to expect as the train creaks to a stop in the darkness near the Ukraine-Polish border, just inside Ukraine. A bus’ headlights inch forward. Eugenia Szuszkiewicz can feel the anxiety balling up in her stomach.
The doctor’s stress levels are through the roof. This is a dangerous journey for children who need palliative care in the best of circumstances. Now 12 of them are doing it in a war.
Small and frail bodies are hoisted up for the last time in weary mothers’ arms as they descend from the bus. Some are gently handed over to waiting doctors and nurses. For others, their health is too delicate and requires extra help to safely transport them on to the train, which will take them to Poland.
The medical staff hope to prevent any of the children from experiencing even more pain – emotionally or physically. One of the child’s health is in such bad condition that doctors tell us that he may not survive the journey.
The medical team asks us to stay away, and not film or try to talk to anyone until the children are stabilized. One by one, they are gently lowered on to 12 little cots placed only a few inches off the ground.
Eleven of the 12 came from hospices around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, once known for having the best palliative care in the country. Now it’s one of the country’s most bombed areas, with Russian forces targeting residential areas there over the last week, hitting civilian infrastructure such as schools, shops, hospitals, apartment blocks and churches.
For days, Szuszkiewicz – a pediatrician and palliative care specialist – fielded phone calls from desperate parents of children stuck the Kharkiv area. The parents’ plea for help came as bombs fell around them. One mother screamed that without a ventilator and pain killers, her child would die.
“I could only tell her if she found a way to Lviv (in western Ukraine) then I would be able to help her,” Szuszkiewicz tells us, tears streaming down her face and her voice catching.
She still doesn’t know if the mother and child are alive.
An agonizing journey
Aboard the train to Poland, Ira caresses her daughters fingers locked in place.
“Yes sweetheart, everything will be fine,” she tells six-year-old Victoria. She then pauses. “I guess everything will be fine.”
Victoria has cerebral palsy and is unable to walk. Her mother Ira told us it’s a “miracle” that they were able to get onto the train. “It was unimaginably hard to get out,” she says.
To get onto the medical train, Ira first had to travel from her village outside of Kharkiv to the city of Lviv, where the families were instructed to meet. Ira cradled Victoria in her arms for the better part of three days to get there, through the panic of others trying to flee and trains so packed she could not even put her down.
Victoria breaks into a huge smile that lights up her eyes each time she hears her name, even if it’s through her mother’s tears.
“She smiles at everyone. Because on the way here we only met kind compassionate people.” Ira says.
The journey has made Ira love her country all the more – as if it were even possible. It only makes leaving that much harder, she says.
“Even when you’re not expecting help, everyone helped. They (strangers on the train journey to Lviv) gave us food, drinks, roof of our heads, they accompanied us, guided us.”
“I don’t know how my legs were taking me,” Ira says. “And it’s only because she’s (Victoria) strong herself. She’s helping me, giving me some king 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 palliative care in the Kharkiv region alone, according to Szuszkiewicz.
Initially, Szuszkiewicz tried to organize a train or ground transport into Kharkiv itself. But that proved to be impossible. It was too dangerous, the city was practically under siege. Instead, the families had to figure out how to get to Lviv, before she could arrange transport to safety in Poland.
She was in touch with the directors of local hospices who put together a list of who wanted to leave, and who realistically could. The parents of children on ventilators did not have a choice – their children would not survive the long journey. Others were too sick to attempt it.
Some decided to chance it anyways. Szuszkiewicz says some parents told her that it would be 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 Lviv meeting point. Around 50 people were evacuated in total.
The Polish Government and Warsaw Central Clinical Hospital converted multiple train cars into a makeshift medical ward, including an operating room.
Szuszkiewicz says “as soon as I arrived and approached that bus and I said, ‘we’re here, soon you’ll be saved, we’ll take you out of this country at war … You can relax now,’” she was met with a sense of both disbelief and relief.
Now, “there’s many words of gratitude, there’s joy, there’s hope for life,” Szuszkiewicz says.
“Each one of those parents says that they have left their city Kharkiv only temporarily, that each of them will come back when there is a chance, that they will rebuild that city from scratch as soon as war stops there, as soon as they can live there again. They say it with such love to their homeland.”
The doctor is no stranger to gratitude: She’s heard parents thank her for saving their children. But this time, she says, is different, the words have a different depth to them.
As the train crosses Ukraine into Poland, Ira receives a video from a neighbor back in Kharkiv.
“They said, the entire town was destroyed within one hour” she says, her voice trembling and her eyes filling with tears.
“There’s not a single home. Do you understand? Not a single home. It’s just a pile of bricks and that’s all. It’s not a war, it’s annihilation. Annihilation of the people.”
Ira tries to call her husband, mother, father, sister. No one is picking up.
“What happens inside a person when their whole life is crumbling … it doesn’t become someone else’s life, one just …” her voice trails off. “One just doesn’t want to believe it.”
As the train pulls into Warsaw, the flashing blue lights of ambulances reflect through its windows. They’re not signaling a medical emergency, and it’s not in response to a bomb. It is a sign they have arrived, saving what is left of their children’s lives.
Anna Odzeniak contributed to this story