Foundation series

Partner foundation in Moldova helps evacuate Ukrainian children with cancer despite fears for their own safety – St. Jude Inspire

IRina Bordeianu’s suitcases are ready and waiting outside the front door. Clothing, first aid, food.

Everything is ready in case the Russian army crosses the Moldavian border with troops and bombs.

For the past two months, Irina and Natalia Vilcu of Life Without Leukemia – a non-profit organization serving children with cancer in Moldova – have been coordinating the evacuation of Ukrainian children with cancer.

And all the while they worried about their own safety and whether they should possibly evacuate Moldovan children to other countries as well.

“I don’t know what I will decide in this situation,” Irina said. “I understand that we have to help all our children here in Moldova. … These patients really need our help, and no one will help them if we leave and don’t.

Poland has received much international attention for its efforts to evacuate children via the Unicorn Marian Wilemski Clinic, a triage center where hundreds of children and their families arrived in convoys before heading to hospitals across Europe and North America.

It is part of SAFER Ukraine, a humanitarian effort organized by St. Jude Children’s research hospital that has helped provide ongoing care for over 1,000 children. St. Jude relied on long-established global partners in the region, including Natalia and Irina, to bring children to safety.

A joint team of colleagues from St. Jude Global, in conjunction with partners at ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for Saint Jude, first appealed to them for support.

Without fanfare, Irina and Natalia did their part. So far they have helped evacuate 40 children and their families so treatment can continue.

“This is my first experience in this humanitarian channel,” Natalia said. “Because it’s a chain. … We don’t have doctors. We don’t have hospitals. But we can at least steer these people away from disaster and provide a safe route to better hospitals.

War so close they could hear it

When Russian bombs hit the city of Odessa in the early days of the war, Natalia could hear the explosions – about 100 miles across the border from her home in Chișinău, Moldova.

It was like hearing thunder in the distance with no sign of rain.

Natalia met a local doctor. If children with cancer fled to Moldova, she thought, could the cancer institute in Chișinău help?

“They started figuring out how many beds they had, how many doctors they had, how many drugs,” she said.

Then someone from St. Jude called to see if Life Without Leukemia and local doctors could help pediatric cancer patients and their families in Moldova.

“We understood that there is no time to think how, when and how much,” Natalia said. “It was important for us to provide an answer.

At first, 10,000 to 15,000 refugees crossed the Moldovan border every day. There were not yet any stadiums set up to house the refugees. And it was cold at the end of February.

“There were like buses at the border taking people to Chișinău,” Natalia said. “And during that time, the volunteers (asking): ‘Can you accommodate a family? Grandmother, mother and two children. Or can you house like two teenage girls, a mother and a dog? Can you accommodate like a grandma and a very sweet cat? »

Everyone was helping. Not only the Moldovan government, but ordinary people who came to the border to help with transport, food, medicine, clothes. Some Moldovans have welcomed families into their own homes.

“In this situation, I was very happy with the kindness of our Moldovan people because all our citizens tried to help as much as they could,” Irina said.

Even those who suffered economically gave their last bread to the refugees themselves.

“It shows me that in our world exists kindness, and everything will be fine because we are together, we can help and we have big hearts,” she said. “And this world can be saved.”

But parents of sick children who need cancer treatment need more than that. They needed to know where to go. They needed to be assured that if they crossed the border, their children would be cared for.

Life Without Leukemia staff standing in front of a van

Irina created a banner to post on social media apps where Ukrainians searched for information on food, housing and health care. Life Without Leukemia is such a small organization that they couldn’t send anyone to the border. But their phone number was on the banner for parents to find. It was published on official websites created by the Moldovan government and on leaflets distributed to refugees.

Families in Ukraine started calling. They needed emergency transport for their children at the border. Irina and Natalia – on the phone day and night – arranged everything.

Natalia helped a father navigate Ukraine as he fled with his son who had a brain tumor. He had already called hospitals in Europe, but needed help getting there once he crossed the border.

Natalia was on the phone with the man for three days. Provide information. Constantly asking where they were.

The family’s car broke down in Dnepropetrovsk, so they had to take the train to Odessa. But the young boy did not feel well. He needed a doctor to come to the station.

“After 8 a.m. it was very dangerous for cars to drive around,” Natalia said. “But they managed to give this medical help. And they stabilized him until he was safe in Odessa. And then in Odessa they just changed the cars. And they arrived at the border.

The family traveled to Chișinău and traveled to Germany where the boy is being treated.

Irina and Natalia organized food and found accommodation for all the families – some of them hours away from the capital. Irina stayed in the hospital overnight with a cancer patient who was having a health crisis. Irina’s husband drove half the country bringing families on safe short breaks en route to the next stage.

Natalia’s father asked if she realized how dangerous the operation was and if she fully understood the enormity of the responsibility.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, Natalia. What are you doing? Do you have a solution if someone needs medical help? Of course I had. Of course I had. But I prayed it wasn’t necessary, and it wasn’t.

Irina and Natalia know what it’s like for a family to be diagnosed with childhood cancer. Irina’s 11-year-old daughter completed treatment in 2015 and has been cancer-free since. Natalia’s son died of cancer in 2019. He was 13 years old. They offer words of encouragement and comfort to Ukrainian families who fear their children need to find treatment quickly to survive.

stay or go

Recent Russian military advances have women on edge about what’s next. The same goes for the recent mysterious bombings in Transnistria, the separatist Moscow-aligned region in Moldova that borders Ukraine.

Some fled this region to Chișinău, the capital.

Natalia will never leave Moldova, she said, even if war breaks out. Even if it means her husband and 16-year-old son are called upon to fight. The son who was the twin of the one she lost to cancer.

“I try to be optimistic that this disaster will not spread,” she said.

Irina’s escape plans change from day to day, sometimes hour to hour. There’s something about having bags packed and ready at the door – kind of a psychological thing. They are ready if the time comes.

But if the Russian army invades it, it won’t leave until all Moldovan children with cancer are safe. She can not.

“Nobody will if we don’t,” she said.

For more information about the Life Without Leukemia Foundation, visit viatafaraleucemia.md.