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LVIV, Ukraine — About a month before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Saint Nicholas Pediatric Hospital, or SNH, in Lviv began major renovations of its emergency and cardiovascular surgery departments. The project was meant to enable SNH to serve the increasing number of patients coming for care, both locally and in western Ukraine.
But as its hallways, common areas, and some rooms stood half torn down, the war began.
“We wanted to make the best [pediatric] emergency department in all of Ukraine. That was our plan, but war came and ruined our plans,” said Dr. Zoranya Ivanyuk, deputy director of the hospital.
In the span of just a couple of weeks, after Russia’s invasion and the onset of war, SNH, a large facility consisting of several wards for specialized care, became one of the only hospitals in the country able to treat pediatric patients needing cardiovascular surgeries and neurosurgeries. Patients and their parents, having been evacuated from specialized hospitals in Kyiv, as well as from other parts of the country, began arriving in need of urgent care.
“Patients from all over Ukraine used to come here before, they wanted to because of our good specialists, but now they have to come, because there is no other place to treat their problems,” said Ivanyuk.
While most of the children at the hospital are in need of treatment for chronic conditions, they and others have also faced trauma – both physical and mental – from the war. Dr. Maria Bukartyk, who has worked at SNH for two years, said she’s been seeing many children with infections and conditions related to lack of food and exposure to the elements.
“A lot of patients and their parents are traumatized and injured. A lot of them lost their friends or their homes. A lot of children won’t eat. It’s a lot of psychological harm,” she said. “It’s a hard time for our country and for me personally,” she said, though made a point of maintaining an upbeat demeanor in her consultations with the parents of her patients.
In the hospital’s rooms, different families and their children tried to overcome, simultaneously, the difficulties of illness, the nightmare of war and a manmade disaster. Most of them arrived from scenes of intense fighting in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson and Mariupol. Their odysseys and their reasons were very similar: cities and towns under heavy shelling, a lack of basic services, a closing grip on their besieged homes and, many times, little children with difficult health conditions.
Marina, who asked to only use her first name for security reasons, said she had arrived with her infant daughter, Kristina, after leaving Kyiv’s largest children’s hospital, Okhmadyt, which was struck with Russian artillery shells.
Kristina, a twin, was born prematurely. Her twin brother died during delivery. Marina said they lived in a basement for 11 days, for shelter from airstrikes.
“When night fell, it was absolute horror. I did not sleep while I was there, out of fear for my baby,” she said.
While in the shelter, Kristina contracted an infection near where a heart shunt had been placed prior to the war to repair her heart condition. The rest of their family remains in Kyiv.
“I would not have left Kyiv had they not evacuated Okhmatdyt. I would have stayed until the end in Kyiv with my child. I don’t want to go to Europe,” Marina said.
Despite the hardship, she remained undeterred. “From the first day when she was born prematurely, I resolved that my child would be whole, that I would do everything so that this child could be just like everyone else. No war can disrupt my child from growing, from developing… I will do everything for this. This is how our Ukrainian women are,” she said.
Another family at SNH, who requested their last name not be used for security reasons, shared a story of escape from Kyiv. The mother, Lesya, and daughter, Kira, said they were being shot at by Russian soldiers while trying to drive out of the city and had to jump out of their moving car, along with another child who Lesya had also helped escape, to avoid being killed. Kira was left with inoperable shrapnel in her leg and Lesya lost a finger after it was damaged in the fall and was only able to be treated a week later when she arrived in Lviv.
“For me, she’s a hero, I can honestly tell you,” Artem, Lesya’s husband, said. He initially stayed behind while his wife and daughter left town, “She really is a superhero. She did what not every man could have done, honestly. To take someone’s child and her own, push them out of the car, jump out herself, get scraped everywhere…”
Prior to the war, Ivanyuk said the hospital struggled to maintain adequate stocks of medicines and single-use supplies, due to financial limitations, mostly. They also dealt with a lack of critical equipment, such as monitors, ventilators, and anesthesia machines. While humanitarian aid has enabled them to maintain adequate amounts of medicines and supplies, the need for critical equipment has become more acute – and concerns about future medicine availability linger.
“We had such problems before. Now it’s even worse because many many patients are here from other hospitals, but also refugees, who are in bad condition after living in shelters,” she said.
The hospital only has two heart monitors, and Ivanyuk said they have to be shared or triaged among as many as 10 patients. “We really need more,” she said. “We don’t know and are not sure how long this war will last. We are okay with doctors and nurses, but what is worse is we don’t have enough equipment to serve all these patients from all over Ukraine,” Ivanyuk said, noting that a large pharmaceutical factory in Kharkiv, which provided their anesthesia medications, had been destroyed.
“We have some quantity of that (anesthesia medicines) but only for a couple of weeks or a month… without anesthesia, you can’t do anything,” she said.
As the war continues with no sign of abatement and the number of patients at the hospital increases Ivanyuk said she and her staff will continue trying to care for everyone who comes through their doors.
“We’re asking for help to give all the children equal opportunities to get the best care,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can.”
Translations of patient parent and Dr. Maria Bukartyk interviews provided by Sam Tkachuk and Albina Popova.
Since the start of the war, Direct Relief has supplied more than 280 tons of medical aid to hospitals and medical facilities throughout the country via Ukraine’s Ministry of Health as well as local nonprofit groups supporting the health system.