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Children with cancer treated in Kyiv hospital basement as fighting continues

Cancer patients rest in the basement of Kyiv's Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital on Feb. 28. The basement has become a bomb shelter. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — Many children with cancer in Ukraine are being forced to take cover and continue their treatment in the basement of one of the country’s largest pediatric hospitals, as fighting continues around them.

The Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital in the capital, Kyiv, is the largest children’s hospital in Ukraine, according to its website, with 620 hospital beds where it treats up to 20,000 children annually.

“If we stop [treatment], they will die,” Lesia Lysytsia, an onco-ophthalmologist, told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “We cannot stop their treatment. They’re at war with cancer every day.”

Lysytsia said most of her patients and others requiring intensive care were sheltering underground in the building’s basement, which is safer and quieter and where the children are unable to hear shelling or airstrikes.

Oncology patients were still getting chemotherapy and radiation therapy, she said, as well as some types of surgery. Patients in more serious condition were being transported to other cities or to Poland, and those who could stay home were being urged to do so, with medical consultations taking place over the phone or online, she added.

Lysytsia called her work setup “surrealism.”

“I still can’t imagine this is happening. When you work, you don’t think about it, you have a lot of duties to perform,” she added. “They’re underground — it’s not normal treatment for patients.”

Kyiv was still holding out Tuesday, but satellite imagery showed a Russian convoy of tanks, troop carriers and artillery more than 40 miles long threatening the capital. Residents in the city of almost 3 million are bracing for an all-out assault as the Russian force apparently prepares to encircle Kyiv.

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Lysytsia told The Post she had spent the past four nights at the hospital along with her husband, who is also a doctor, and their two children, ages 5 and 3.

Like her younger patients, her children are scared but “they don’t realize the big problem of what’s happened,” she said. Teenage patients are more aware, Lysytsia added, with some suffering from panic attacks because of the crisis.

“It’s uncomfortable conditions for them,” she said. “For sure they don’t like it, but it’s better to be in safety.”

Images from the Associated Press showed children, many of whom had undergone chemotherapy, in the hospital’s basement, sleeping on sofas and mats. Some were connected to drips, and others were holding up handwritten signs saying “Stop War.”

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine six days ago, the hospital has issued several statements saying it will continue to treat patients and work to ensure the safety of its medical staff.

Kathy Pritchard-Jones, president of the International Society of Pediatric Oncology and a professor of oncology, said in statement this week that the global body “stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, the health care workers caring for children and adolescents with cancer and all others supporting patients and their families, or affected by the widespread violence and destruction caused by the Russian military invasion.”

Pritchard-Jones said the society was aware of children being treated in “underground shelters during chemotherapy” and called for the protection of health-care workers under the Geneva Conventions and other international laws.

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Among Ukraine’s population of 44 million, there are about 170,000 cancer cases, according to World Health Organization data. The global health body also warned last week that it was worried about oxygen-supply shortages in the country, which it said were “nearing a very dangerous point.”

The WHO said trucks were struggling to deliver supplies and called for humanitarian corridors from Poland and elsewhere to secure medical aid.

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It’s unclear how many children have been killed or wounded in the conflict, but the U.N. children’s agency confirmed in a statement that there had been deaths among children and that others had been “profoundly traumatized by the violence all around them.”

UNICEF said that it had received reports of “hospitals, schools, water and sanitation facilities and orphanages under fire” and that “explosive weapons in populated areas and explosive remnants of war are real and present dangers for the children of Ukraine.”

“The situation for children in Ukraine is worsening by the minute as we hear harrowing reports of children killed, wounded and many vulnerable children stranded in the most terrifying conditions,” Afshan Khan, UNICEF regional director for Europe and Central Asia, told The Post by email Tuesday.

Ohmatdyt’s chief surgeon, Volodymyr Zhovnir, told reporters Monday that patient numbers had dropped to about 200 from 600 since the fighting broke out, according to the Reuters news agency.

“These are patients who cannot receive medical treatment at home; they cannot survive without medication,” he said, adding that the hospital had stockpiled enough medication for a month but still needed food for newborn babies.

“Of all things, we need peace most,” Zhovnir said.

Lysytsia said that supplies at the hospital so far were good and that social distancing due to the coronavirus had become a thing of the past amid the war.

Though it’s unsure how long the conflict will last, she said, “I want it finished as quickly as possible.” But she added that she and other colleagues will “stay till the end.”

“We will continue to work for as long as it will be possible,” she said.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.