Fighting for her life, far from Ukraine

A 5-year-old Ukrainian girl with a brain tumor was among the children brought to the US for treatment after their country was invaded by Russia.

MEMPHIS – When Russia Invades UkraineMarija Pyzhyk remains primarily concerned for her 5-year-old daughter, Khrystyna, who is being treated for a brain tumor. The family lives in Lviv, a western city near Poland, far from the rocket rains to the east.

However, soon after, Ms. Pyzhyk was informed that the hospital was running out of medicine to treat her daughter; The doctor told her she would have to evacuate immediately to receive care in another country.

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

Khrystyna’s condition, optic glioma, the most common childhood cancer, can cause blindness and even death without the right therapy to shrink or stabilize the tumour. Khrystyna requires daily oral chemotherapy.

On March 16, Ms. Pyzhyk, Khrystyna and her son, 10-year-old Sergei, bid farewell to their husband, Volodymyr, and boarded a bus to Poland, where they joined several other evacuated families with their children. sick children. While other families were transported to hospitals across Europe, Ms. Pyzhyk and her children were told they would be flown to the United States.

Ms Pyzhyk said this week at a hospital in Memphis where her daughter is now a patient. She didn’t hesitate, she said, because Khrystyna’s life depended on it.

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

Khrystyna was among eight Ukrainian children who arrived at St.Jude Children’s Research Hospital at the end of March, an organization specializing in childhood cancer funded by private donors. The hospital has set up a triple clinic in Poland to identify children in need of care and place them with partner hospitals, mainly in Europe.

“If all of these children stay in Ukraine, they will die from illness, complications from treatment or war,” said Dr. James Downing, chief executive officer of St. Jude, said in an interview.

Treating childhood cancer requires rapid succession of high-intensity drugs, he said. “Any interruption of treatment significantly increases the risk of failure, relapse, and ultimately death from this disease. It is a matter of time. ”

Six days after they left Ukraine, Pyzhyks checked into a two-bedroom apartment at Target House, the inpatient facility of the Memphis hospital, with two suitcases and two small bags.

After a visit to the hospital, during which Khrystyna was vaccinated before starting oral treatment, Dr. Ibrahim Qaddoumi asked her small Ukrainian patient what the Barbie doll she received at the hospital was cooking. . “Ukrainian,” replied an interpreter.

On a subsequent outing to the international market with two other families, Ms. Pyzhyk searched for buckwheat flour and yogurt. When they were about to check out, the market owner said they didn’t need to pay. “I went through the war. Two of them,” he said.

At their next stop, an American-style supermarket, they were dazzled by an array of products. At the deli counter, workers give them samples of Italian sausages. “Take your time,” said one waiter.

Ms. Pyzhyk regularly prepares Ukrainian dishes in their apartment. But Khrystyna and Sergei mostly prefer to eat at the hospital cafe, where they can order burgers, macaroni and cheese and even fried catfish, a Southern classic. Their favorites are shredded chicken and fries.

Khrystyna knew that Ukraine was at war, her mother said. “There’s no way she didn’t know what was 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 worries about what is happening to his family on the other side of the world, but he said in a phone call that his daughter has been brave during her long treatment. “My daughter is a strong personality,” he said. “She is a real Ukrainian.”

Khrystyna and Sergei have a close and tender relationship. He was his sister’s protector, holding her hand as they entered the hospital, walking to the doctor’s office or sitting down to study English.

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

He is acutely aware of his sister’s vulnerability. Glioma can affect the eye, and Khrystyna’s left eyelid is slightly closed; The area above her eyes is slightly protruding.

Not long after their arrival, Ms. Pyzhyk took her children and Marya, another Ukrainian child, on their first trip to the zoo. They lingered near giraffes, lions and zebras, in awe.

But by the end of the second week, the fact that they weren’t on vacation, and that their homes were far away, began to arrive.

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

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