Our expedition to bring Ukrainian children with cancer and their families to Switzerland
We’re speeding down the road through the Polish countryside in a taxi. It is taking us to a hotel that has been turned into a make-shift clinic by St. Jude Global to triage Ukrainian children with cancer who have just made it across the border from Ukraine with their families.
The drive seems to be taking forever. No highways, just rolling hills and occasional small towns.
Now we’re behind a tractor. It wobbles along and finally turns off the road to the right, big wheels digging into the dirt.
We’re going to be late.
We need to get there. They’re waiting.
Can this taxi not drive any faster? We literally ran out of the airport and into the cab.
We’ve had so little time to pull this off.
Three weeks ago, we agreed to organize the transfer of a group of Ukrainian children with cancer and their families to Switzerland. Children who, without urgent medical care, will die. Children who should have been able to have treatment in their country, but who have been hiding in hospital basements with their mothers and doctors, waiting to flee the war.
We are familiar with childhood cancer. We’re moms who had kids in treatment ourselves. We know what it’s like to sit across the table with a team of doctors who tell you, with sombre faces, that your child has cancer.
We can’t imagine what this would be like if they followed that by saying they couldn’t do anything about it because the hospital was under attack.
Since Zoé4life funds research, we are very active on an international level, and have many contacts with other charities. When we were asked by Childhood Cancer International – Europe if we could help, we of course said yes.
For three weeks we hardly did anything else.
We worked at coordinating the Swiss medical team’s requirements, while always feeling that pressure that only a parent of a child with cancer knows: we need to go faster. Cancer doesn’t wait. And war doesn’t either.
The first challenge was how to get them to Switzerland, from almost 1800 km away. Buses? No – a 20-hour drive for children who are already in poor health is not an option.
Airplane? We scour our network. I ask my boss for help. Not my direct boss. No, the big boss, the head of Skyguide. I work in aviation and I need an airplane.
We’re willing to pay if we need to. We could dip into the funds we’ve worked hard to collect last year that are supposed to go to research. It would mean we would have to work twice as hard to make up the lost funds. But we’ll do it.
And then, the phone call. The head of EasyJet Switzerland, who heard about our mission through my boss. We need a plane? We have it. Skyguide, the Geneva airport and Swissport all waive their usual fees. Gate Gourmet offers food on the flight. We end up with a whole crew – pilots, flight attendants, who volunteer on their day off.
We have hardly any time to grasp the incredibleness of this gift as we continue to urgently plan the trip. But our energy and motivation is tripled.
Natalie and Gaelle orchestrate a complex arrangement of buses and ambulances for our arrival in Geneva. Everyone wants to help. How many buses will we need? How many ambulances?
We don’t know.
Where are the buses taking the families? Which hospitals are the children being rushed to?
We don’t know.
How many passengers in total? How old are the kids? What condition will they be in?
No, we don’t know.
We don’t know because these people are still in Ukraine. They are travelling, have been travelling, for days, trying to get to the border. We don’t even know who they are yet. As we plan and coordinate, as the clock ticks and the days pass, they are still in Ukraine, almost at the border now. We know nothing yet about the people we will be picking up
And they don’t even know yet that they will be sent to Switzerland. They have no idea that on this side, there is a team of people scrambling to get everything ready for their arrival.
It’s like we are all heading toward each other, for days before finally meeting, not knowing who or what we’re going to find.
Finally, after days of working non-stop, many short nights, everything is in place. We’re ready.
We’re set to go on Wednesday.
On Tuesday afternoon we hear that the plan for Wednesday has to be cancelled.
The families are not across the border yet.
There’s been bombing near Lviv, the last city before they board a makeshift hospital-train that should take them to Poland. Everything is chaotic and any kind of planning is unreliable.
We wait. We want these families, our families, to make it out.
Everyone changes their plan. EasyJet tells us we can have the plane any time. I can’t even stop to think about what that means, to an airline that is just resurfacing after two years of pandemic-related economic catastrophe. You can have the plane anytime. Just let us know. The whole crew is on standby.
The families make it across the border. It’s Wednesday late afternoon. The St. Jude people are there to meet them, to look at the children right away. By the time they get them all to their clinic it is very late Wednesday night. We get a message at around midnight saying they won’t be ready on Thursday. Our families are not in good shape. They need the doctors in Poland to check them out first. Some need to be rushed to the hospital.
Ok. Reset for Friday. Everyone on standby once again.
Thursday afternoon we have confirmation. They’ll be ready to go on Friday morning!
It’s 930pm on Thursday night when the CEO of EasyJet Switzerland calls me to say they really really need the passenger list. I know. I’m afraid to tell him – I still don’t have it. There’s been an emergency again with one of the kids at the clinic and the St. Jude doctors are working on him. Their priority isn’t giving me a list of names. They’re dealing with urgent situations right now, and tomorrow seems far off to them. He understands.
We get the list around 11pm. Our families!
The clinic sends us a message in the middle of the night that the passenger list has changed again. Another child had to be rushed to the hospital during the night. He’s not coming.
Friday morning, I turn my alarm off at 445am. It didn’t ring, I was already awake.
Outside in the dark Natalie, Gaelle and Lana are waiting for me with our new friend, Ukrainian-speaker Alona.
We meet up at 6am in front of the EasyJet gate with our team of 10 volunteers. We have a pediatrician, a psychologist, nurses, and Ukrainian speakers. We’re ready to go!
We buckle into our seats and turn our phones off after sending a million last minute texts. The team of people in Switzerland getting ready for our return is already up and getting to work. Ambulance drivers from Geneva and Neuchatel are coming on their days off with free vehicles, large tour buses from Thomas Marti Tour company are on their way to the airport to meet us, at no cost and with volunteer drivers. Raiffeisen bank offers to cover the cost of the gas. Several Zoé4life volunteers are coordinating with the Geneva airport, which is helping organize our arrival, since it won’t be like a regular flight. Our “partner in crime,” the incredible Zuzana from Childhood Cancer Switzerland is on stand by in case any changes to the housing requirements happen. She is coordinating with the Ronald McDonald House foundations who do an incredible job organizing homes near each hospital.
We are so, incredibly lucky, to have this team. Everyone a volunteer like us, doing this on their days off.
After two years of hardly traveling during the pandemic, it feels strange to be on an EasyJet flight off to Poland in March. But there you go. The ten of us have the plane to ourselves. The EasyJet crew treat us like royalty.
I check the time. We’ve been told we need to get to the clinic quickly. Cancer doesn’t wait. These kids have not had treatment for days. Weeks maybe? I’ve asked my co-workers at Skyguide to rush our flight through the airspace as much as possible. Some of them, hearing about our expedition, offer to donate a day off to me. Our union HelvetiCA also gives me two days.
Natalie and I look at each other, exchanging unspoken thoughts. We are amazed at how we, two moms who met at the hospital years ago, now have all these people helping, giving their time, wanting to make a difference for children and families they don’t even know. As so often with Zoé4life, our faith in the human spirit is renewed by other people’s generosity.
We land ahead of time.
The four of us from Zoé4life jump in a taxi.
Our job is to get to the clinic and bring the bus back. Then get these families to Switzerland as quickly as possible. We’ve been told that at least three patients will require an ambulance directly to the hospital on landing.
Finally, almost two hours later, the taxi turns down a quieter road, then stops at a gate. We’re there!
We jump out of the cab, and the St. Jude team stands there, waiting to greet us.
We head to the large tour bus. The families are on board. Our families.
We climb up the steps and stand tightly together at the front, facing all these people and their children. They’re all wearing masks against covid, and their eyes look tired and wary.
A translator introduces us. We want them to know we are parents of children who had cancer too. We tell them, through the interpreter, that we don’t at all know what they have lived through with the war. But that we do know what it is to have a child with cancer, and for that at least, we can help.
They nod, silent.
The translator leaves the bus and we’re off. We wave out the window at the St. Jude team. They just gave us a busload of people, some of them critically ill. They trust us with these people’s lives.
Now it’s just the four of us, who speak not a word of Ukrainian, a Polish bus driver, and about 40 other people who stare at us with tired and scared eyes.
The adults are all women except one – the only man is injured, and we understand that is why he was allowed to leave with his wife and two children.
Most of the women are alone with their child. I picture what they are thinking right now, driving off in the direction of the airport, away from the border with Ukraine.
I look over at a woman cradling her son who stares up at the ceiling of the bus, unmoving. She looks exhausted. Later, when I help carry her canvas bag I’m amazed at the weight of the medical equipment she’s carrying. I need to put it down after every ten steps or so. She insists she needs it with her at all times. She’s been lugging this around for days.
Even later, in the airplane, I’ll hold her son while she sets herself up in her seat and makes sure her bags are nearby. Oleg is 7 years old and weighs 11kg.
The check-in is slow. The families don’t have a lot of baggage and much of it is in plastic bags. We have to explain to a grandmother that she can’t bring her entire set of cutlery on board in a bag.
Finally, everyone is buckled into their seat. When the plane takes off, I wonder if anyone will be sacred. Many of these people have never flown before. But it’s just the opposite – the kids all start giggling, the grandmother woops.
People start talking, smiling. It’s like they could not let go of their fear until we were really airborne. Or maybe they didn’t really believe this was happening for real. We only then realize google translate does not work on an airplane (details!) and improvise with tons of sign language and our Ukrainian speakers.
The flight attendants hand out food to everyone. Some of the mothers eat only half their sandwich and pack the rest into the suitcases for later. We wonder how hard it has been for them these past few weeks.
A mom signals to a translator that she wants to talk to me. She left a son behind. Can he come later? I nod and start mentally planning the next trip. Later, we find out four mothers have left young children in Ukraine. Our next job will be to plan how to reunite these families.
We’ll have to figure it out later. We’re about to land.
When the plane’s door opens, we’re greeted by the CEO of EasyJet and the director of the Geneva Airport. There’s the team of ambulances, and the paediatric oncologist is waiting for us. Our families are brought to a special private room at the airport where the doctor can check each child.
Everything speeds up. The three urgent cases are rushed off to the Lausanne hospital – Natalie is on the phone with the head doctor of that unit who is telling her to get those children to her now. Later, when I think back on this and read over the medical records, I will realize just how critical the conditions of some of these kids were.
I hardly sleep that night. The entire day keeps running through my mind on replay. I’m flying in the plane. I’m in the taxi. I’m holding little Oleg.
On Sunday we take the families out for a stroll down by the lake in Lausanne. The younger kids ride the merry-go-round, giggling as they swing by us. The older teens are too cool for that but enjoy watching a roller skater perform some tricks nearby.
The next day, it’s time to say goodbye. Strangely, despite the lack of any possibility to speak to each other, we’ve gotten close. It’s hard to say goodbye as they all head off to different hospitals in other cities in Switzerland.
A teen girl, smiling at us under her hoodie pulled up over her bald head, and looking as pale as a sheet of paper, nods when we say through the interpreter that we hope she likes her new home. We show them photos on our phones of Swiss cities, and they smile and nod. There’s a sadness that we sense – yes, Switzerland is beautiful, and their medical care will be excellent. We know that. What we don’t know is what it’s like to leave behind your husband, your family, your other kids and your friends, your job, all your things, your home. And not know when, or if, you’ll see them again.
The story doesn’t end here. We’re in touch every day with the families. The 10-year-old son of the woman who spoke to me on the plane has arrived. For the others, we’re still working on it. Two siblings are hiding in a basement with their grandmother after their home was destroyed, in the Donetsk region, which makes it extremely complicated to figure out how to get them out of the country safely. But we’re not giving up.
The first part of the story began when our plane took off full of people who, the day before had never considered coming to Switzerland. Now the rest of the story will continue, and it is up to us, all of us, to make it as good as possible.