Ukrainian children's epic journey to Geneva for cancer treatment

Ukrainian children in urgent need of cancer children arrive in Geneva on 18 March with their families. (Credit: Genève Aéroport)

Their names are Uliana, Maksim and Oleg. They all suffer from cancer and have not received any treatment since 24 February when war broke out in Ukraine. But thanks to Swiss NGO Zoe4Life, they are among the sixteen Ukrainian children aged between one and 14 who finally landed at Geneva airport on 18 March to continue their treatments in Swiss hospitals.

“Our colleagues from Ukraine and Poland immediately called us for help, saying that the hospitals were bombed and that there was no more medicine. Without treatment, these children are doomed,” says Natalie Guignard, Zoe4Life's director.

The long road to safety. In Ukraine, there are about 1,600 children with cancer or serious blood diseases every year. Since the beginning of the war, dozens of them have been arriving in Poland every day from the city of Lviv, close to the border, where convoys are organised for their departure. According to Zoe4Life, more than 450 have managed to leave Ukraine in order to resume life-saving treatment elsewhere.

“These children, who should be in a sterile environment in a hospital, find themselves in basements waiting for the right moment to catch a train to the Polish border. They are then crammed into wagons, lying on the floor and transported as best they can,” describes Natalie Guignard.

Chasing – and finding – unicorns. Zoe4Life is part of Childhood Cancer International (CCI), an international organisation of parent associations from 170 countries around the world. The CCI has called on everyone to do everything possible to transfer the children who are fit to travel. They are initially housed in a town kept secret for security reasons between Warsaw and Krakow, where a building was transformed in early March with the help of St Jude Hospital and named the Unicorn Clinic, referring to the magical healing power of the legendary animal. Those who are able to travel abroad must ensure that their medical records are first transferred by the teams in Ukraine and then translated to ensure quality and continuity of care in the host country.

Despite careful advance planning, the Swiss Society of Paediatric Haematology and Oncology (SSPHO) in charge of the medical organisation of these children in Switzerland and the Unicorn Clinic had to adapt to  difficult and complex transfer conditions and deal with uncertainties right up until the last minute, replacing patients who ultimately could not travel for medical reasons.

“Because of these unexpected changes, the patients’ medical information was not available until the day before their departure, adding a certain difficulty to their care,” said Professor Marc Ansari, head of the paediatric oncology and haematology unit of the HUG.

‘It’s both tragic and magical’. In less than 48 hours, Zoe4Life, with the help of KinderKrebs Schweitz (Cancer de l’Enfant en Suisse) and the Ronald McDonald's Foundation, organised their transportation and care in Switzerland. In a collective  show of solidarity, EasyJet offered a plane, its crew came free of charge, Gate Gourmet provided meals and drinks, Geneva Airport offered taxis, the ambulance drivers of the city of Neuchâtel and the Geneva fire brigade were on call  to transport the children voluntarily the weekend after their arrival.

“It was really a powerful moment to see so many people willing to help, but it's both tragic and magical. The families were so grateful for the support to give them a chance, but at the same time they had to leave everything behind, leave a country they love to try to save just one of their children,” says Guignard.

Of the sixteen families who arrived in Switzerland, several of the mothers were forced to leave their other children in Ukraine with their fathers or grandparents.

“They chose to leave because it was the only way to give their sick child a chance. For a child with cancer in Ukraine, at this moment, there is no hope for a cure,” adds Guignard.

Arrival in Geneva. The children and their families were accompanied by paediatrician Olena Germann during the flight and were met on arrival by paediatric oncologist Dr Tiago Nava, delegated by Professor Marc Ansari with the support of the Cansearch Foundation.

Three emergency patients were immediately transferred to the CHUV (Lausanne Hospital) and the Inselspital in Bern, while the others were accommodated in a hotel in the Lausanne area while waiting to be  transferred  to hospitals in Geneva, Basel, Bern, Lucerne, Bellinzona and Chur. Guignard said she will long remember this break in the city of Lausanne.

“One mother told us that the little time they spent with us during the weekend, simply walking by the lake, eating ice cream and riding the carousel, allowed them to forget for a few hours that they had fled a country at war and even the illness of their child.”

After this successful operation, many people are asking “when will the next convoy be?” “It's true that for these families we made a difference, but there are still so many others…” confided her 17-year-old daughter to Guignard. She knows that it's not just a question of welcoming these children, but also of making sure that their needs on arrival – medical facilities, translation, housing – are in place so that they can be supervised and accompanied. In five cities, the Ronald McDonald Foundation has made parent houses available near hospitals, but it will be necessary to find long-term accommodation and to ensure that potential volunteers are aware of the logistics of dealing with a seriously ill child.

“Leaving in the middle of the night in case of an emergency, going to the hospital every third day, providing care at home... And these are not children who can travel by public transport. Welcoming a Ukrainian family into your home is already quite a commitment, with a seriously ill child it is even more complicated. We hope that one day we will be able to organise their return journey to a peaceful Ukraine.”

Find out More. You can make a donation to help their work for Ukrainian children with cancer:

- Zoe4Life CH78 8080 8001 2075 2667 4 - mention Ukraine

- Cansearch: the foundation has just granted an extraordinary fund to help the children and their families treated at the HUG.