Fighting for her 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 their country was invaded by Russia.

MEMPHIS — When Russia invaded Ukraine, Marija Pyzhyk was still particularly concerned about her 5-year-old daughter, Chrystyna, 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.

But soon Ms. Pyzhyk was informed that the hospital was running out of medicine to treat her daughter; she should be evacuated immediately for care in another country, the doctor told her.

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

Chrystyna’s condition, optic glioma, a cancer most common in young children, can cause blindness and even death without consistent therapy to shrink or stabilize the tumor. Chrystyna requires daily oral chemotherapy.

On March 16, Ms. Pyzhyk, Khrystyna and her son Sergei (10) said goodbye to her husband Volodymyr and boarded a bus to Poland, where they joined several other evacuated families with sick children. While other families were referred to hospitals across Europe, Ms. Pyzhyk and her children were told they would be flown 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 said, because Chrystyna’s life depended on it.

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

Chrystyna was one of eight Ukrainian children who arrived in late March at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, an institution that specializes in pediatric cancer and is funded by private donors. The hospital had set up a triage clinic in Poland to identify and accommodate children in need of care in partner hospitals, mainly in Europe.

“If all these children stayed in Ukraine, they would die from their illness, complications from the treatment of their illness or war,” said Dr. James Downing, the director of St. Jude, in an interview.

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

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

After visiting the hospital, where Khrystyna received the required vaccinations before starting her oral therapy, Dr. Ibrahim Qaddoumi asked his little Ukrainian patient what the Barbie doll she had been given in the hospital was cooking. “Ukrainian borscht,” an interpreter replied.

On a later trip to an international market with two other families, Mrs. Pyzhyk searched for buckwheat and sour yogurt. When they were getting ready to check out, the owner of the market told them not to pay. ‘I’ve been through war. Two of them,” he said.

At their next stop, an American-style grocery store, they were amazed at the wide range of products. At the deli, workers offered them samples of salami. “Take your time,” said a servant.

Ms. Pyzhyk has regularly prepared Ukrainian dishes in their apartment. But Khrystyna and Sergei prefer to eat at the hospital cafe, where they can order cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese and even fried catfish, a Southern classic. Their favorite is chicken strips and fries.

Chrystyna is aware that Ukraine is at war, her mother said. “It’s impossible for her not to know what’s going on. She was subjected to air strike warnings,” she said. “But I don’t think she knows what that means.”

Back home in Lviv, her husband is concerned about what is happening to his family on the other side of the world, but he said in a telephone conversation that his daughter has been brave during her years of treatment. “My daughter is a strong personality,” he said. “She is a real Ukrainian.”

Khrystyna and Sergei have a close and tender bond. He is his sister’s protector and holds her hand as they enter the hospital, walk to the doctor’s office or sit down for English class.

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 too long for us to be friends again.”

He is well aware of his sister’s vulnerability. Glioma can affect the eye and Chrystyna’s left eyelid is half closed; the area above her eye bulges out a bit.

Not long after they arrived, Ms. Pyzhyk took her children and Marya, another Ukrainian child, on their first trip to a zoo. In awe, they hung around the giraffes, lions, and zebras.

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

“Are we flying home today?” Chrystyna asked her mother over dinner, but burst into tears when she heard the answer. Sergei tried to comfort his sister and gently massaged her back.

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