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Inside the harrowing journey to evacuate critically ill children out of Ukraine
05:13 - Source: CNN
Mostyska, Ukraine CNN  — 

The medical team is not entirely sure what to expect as the train creaks to a stop in the darkness near the Ukraine-Polish border, just inside Ukraine. A bus’ headlights inch forward. Eugenia Szuszkiewicz can feel the anxiety balling up in her stomach.

The doctor’s stress levels are through the roof. This is a dangerous journey for children who need palliative care in the best of circumstances. Now 12 of them are doing it in a war.

Small and frail bodies are hoisted up for the last time in weary mothers’ arms as they descend from the bus. Some are gently handed over to waiting doctors and nurses. For others, their health is too delicate and requires extra help to safely transport them on to the train, which will take them to Poland.

The medical staff hope to prevent any of the children from experiencing even more pain – emotionally or physically. One of the child’s health is in such bad condition that doctors tell us that he may not survive the journey.

The medical team asks us to stay away, and not film or try to talk to anyone until the children are stabilized. One by one, they are gently lowered on to 12 little cots placed only a few inches off the ground.

Eleven of the 12 came from hospices around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, once known for having the best palliative care in the country. Now it’s one of the country’s most bombed areas, with Russian forces targeting residential areas there over the last week, hitting civilian infrastructure such as schools, shops, hospitals, apartment blocks and churches.

For days, Szuszkiewicz – a pediatrician and palliative care specialist – fielded phone calls from desperate parents of children stuck the Kharkiv area. The parents’ plea for help came as bombs fell around them. One mother screamed that without a ventilator and pain killers, her child would die.

“I could only tell her if she found a way to Lviv (in western Ukraine) then I would be able to help her,” Szuszkiewicz tells us, tears streaming down her face and her voice catching.

She still doesn’t know if the mother and child are alive.

An agonizing journey

Aboard the train to Poland, Ira caresses her daughters fingers locked in place.

“Yes sweetheart, everything will be fine,” she tells six-year-old Victoria. She then pauses. “I guess everything will be fine.”

Victoria has cerebral palsy and is unable to walk. Her mother Ira told us it’s a “miracle” that they were able to get onto the train. “It was unimaginably hard to get out,” she says.

To get onto the medical train, Ira first had to travel from her village outside of Kharkiv to the city of Lviv, where the families were instructed to meet. Ira cradled Victoria in her arms for the better part of three days to get there, through the panic of others trying to flee and trains so packed she could not even put her down.

Victoria, 6, traveled to Poland on the train with her mother, Ira.

Victoria breaks into a huge smile that lights up her eyes each time she hears her name, even if it’s through her mother’s tears.