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Dr Rodarte and Sofia from Ukraine

John G. Rodarte, M.D., FAAP, cared for Sofia, whose laughter captivated everyone in the refugee tent. But watching moms and children bid farewell to their spouses or dads was “unbearably heartbreaking.” Courtesy of John G. Rodarte, M.D., FAAP

‘Something I had to do’: Pediatricians travel to Ukraine borders

July 1, 2022

As the Ukraine invasion continues, pediatric health care providers are finding ways to aid children and families displaced by the war. Here are three of their stories.

Continuing cancer care

While the war in Ukraine has devastated families, the hardships are compounded when a child has cancer.

As geography is one of the disparities in pediatric cancer, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis has forged international partnerships, part of its effort to improve outcomes.

Those collaborations paved the way for SAFER Ukraine (Supporting Action For Emergency Responses in Ukraine). The network of countries, organizations and hospitals has evacuated hundreds of Ukrainian children with cancer and blood disorders and placed them in hospitals in at least 16 countries.

Critical care pediatrician Asya Agulnik, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, runs SAFER Ukraine for St. Jude Global and its regional partners.

“The program gives them … hope for a cure in a situation where otherwise that would not exist,” said Dr. Agulnik, director of the Eurasia Regional Program for St. Jude Global. The region encompasses 15 countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, where St. Jude has had partnerships for four years.

“Those personal and institutional collaborations are really what made it possible for us to step in and serve as this bridge to coordinate the evacuations,” Dr. Agulnik said.

Critical care pediatrician Asya Agulnik, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, runs SAFER
Ukraine for St. Jude Global and its regional partners. Courtesy of
Asya Agulnik, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP


After families arrive at a triage center in Poland, patients are referred to hospitals across Europe and North America, including St. Jude, with the help of pediatric hematologist-oncologist coordinators in those countries.

A virtual command center oversees the logistics, which includes ensuring that medical records are translated and received in time.

“War always harms the most vulnerable, and children with cancer are certainly among the most vulnerable,” Dr. Agulnik said. “It’s heartbreaking that these patients have to deal with a potentially fatal diagnosis. But there is a positive, at least, which is that we’re able to offer these patients a different hope for a different future.”

She said that is in line with St. Jude’s mission “to make sure that no child dies in the dawn of life.”

Helping hands where needed

When Kelly A. Swords, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, travels internationally, she usually is training residents or attendings and performing surgery.

But in April, Dr. Swords found herself in a medical field tent in Poland at the Ukrainian border, determined to help in any way possible.

The associate clinical professor of urology at UC San Diego Health/Rady Children’s Hospital was stationed with French nonprofit Sauveteurs Sans Frontieres, treating mostly children and women as they crossed the border. Illnesses included respiratory conditions, gastroenteritis, motion sickness and allergic reactions.

Dr. Kelly Swords in Ukraine
Working out of a medical field tent with a
French nonprofit group, Kelly A. Swords, M.D.,
M.P.H., FAAP, a pediatric urologist, sorts supplies
at the Polish border. Courtesy of Kelly A.
Swords, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP

The families were sad and stressed, she said. Some who had their vital signs checked just needed to know they were all right. Others lacked their medications or were hungry.

Dr. Swords prepared for the trip by reaching out to medical professionals already in the field and lining up physician friends in various specialties in the U.S. to consult if needed.

Colleagues, neighbors and friends donated medical supplies and other products. A portion of the supplies made their way to orphanages and hospitals.

In looking back, Dr. Swords said she hopes the world doesn’t become fatigued by the war as it drags on. She wants people to realize the urgency for Ukrainians to receive ongoing treatment for trauma, as well as for routine medical care.

“Even after being there, I still can’t completely process the terrible things that were happening,” she said. “It seems unreal in 2022 that this could be happening to any nation, to any group of people.”

She recalls seeing some children so traumatized they were unable to play or engage when presented with toys.

“One of the little boys hadn’t spoken since they left,” she said. “The kids are watching their dads get left behind.”

She appreciates having the opportunity to make a difference but says, “There’s no amount of giving that I can do … that surpasses the amount of learning that I take away.”

Changing course

When a group of medical professionals invited John G. Rodarte, M.D., FAAP, to help rescue 23 Ukrainian orphans with special needs, they knew he had skills that go beyond pediatric care.

Dr. Rodarte does volunteer search-and-rescue for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He also is medical director of Healing Hearts Across Borders, which makes regular trips to Mexico.

The plan for Ukraine was to extricate the orphans, who had adoptive families waiting in the U.S. The 13-member team would join the nonprofits Third Wave Volunteers and Exitus, which led the mission.

What the L.A. team didn’t know was how those plans would change.

The journey to the Romanian border with Ukraine involved three flights, followed by a seven-hour drive through a snowstorm. The volunteers slept on couches and on the floor of a safe house where the owners spoke no English.

But the chaos of the war prevented the team from ever setting out to locate the orphans, who were spread out in areas difficult to access. It was just too dangerous. So, the team decided to help families crossing over the border in any way they could.

“You change the focus to be able to adapt to situations,” said Dr. Rodarte, a pediatrician with Huntington Health Physicians, an affiliate of Cedars-Sinai Health System.

It was bitter cold, and the volunteers offered blankets and hot soup while the mothers completed paperwork on their destination. Some had no place to go.

“That gave me a chance to work with the children,” Dr. Rodarte said. “I could connect with the kids, from playing peek-a-boo with a little girl to video games with teenagers.”

Seeing the mothers and children at the border bid farewell to their spouses or dads was unbearably heartbreaking, he said.

The team also slipped into Ukraine to deliver food and supplies.

They returned to the U.S. on the chartered medical flight that had been lined up for the expected trip home. Dr. Rodarte later learned that some orphans were rescued, and efforts continue.

Despite the turn of events, Dr. Rodarte remains positive about the group’s contributions: “It felt like something I had to do.”

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