As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, pediatric hospital patients have gone underground, using hospital bunkers that were originally built for a different time.
Parents hold their children — some of them in treatment for cancer or awaiting cardiac surgery — while resting on thin mattresses on the floor. Several babies share a crib.
But medical supplies, including important chemotherapies, are dwindling and doctors and nurses are challenged with providing treatments without their usual access to important equipment.
“These children suffer more because they need to stay alive to fight with the cancer — and this fight cannot wait,” Dr. Lesia Lysytsia told NBC News over the phone from the basement of Okhmatdyt, the country’s largest children’s hospital, in Kyiv.
“If the childrens’ cancer treatment is interrupted further by the war, our patients, they will die,” she warned.
According to TIME magazine, most children have been evacuated from Okhmatdyt, but those with life-threatening illness must stay, for now. Several are on life support, or need long chemotherapy sessions for their cancer.
“The saddest thing is that when the siren sounds, we have to go down with the children and parents to the basement,” surgeon Vitaly Demidov told the publication.
“We run five or six times a day in the basement and back.”
He told TIME that children on oxygen support require a staff member to run alongside their gurney while operating a manual ventilator.
An image of Demidov, wearing a rifle in a hospital room as he cradles a baby on life support, has gone viral since he posted it to Instagram on Feb. 26.
In the hospital bunker, built originally by Soviet engineers in the 1970s to withstand potential Cold War battles, cancer and neonatal patients are crammed into the tiny space, reports The Guardian.
“Conditions are very minimal, but there is a feeling of security here,” mother Natalya Tyshchuk, who has been with her premature baby at Okhmatdyt since her birth in December, told the newspaper.
“I sit on the floor, but there are no windows and the walls are thick, and we don’t hear any of the explosions except the very loud ones.”
Lysytsia told NBC that a number of the cancer patients only have access to the most basic chemotherapy right now, and are without access to specialized medicines or targeted treatments.
“We will calculate how many people or soldiers have died in attacks, but we will never calculate how many patients weren’t diagnosed of a disease in time, how many patients died because they didn’t receive treatment,” she said.
“It’s an epic amount of people.”
The World Health Organization said Wednesday that some life-saving medicines, including insulin, may come into “imminent” short shortly supply in the country, reports Reuters.
It’s gotten to the point — only six days into the invasion — that doctors at the Kyiv Regional Oncology Center have started taking plasma from the parents for their children’s blood transfusions, reports NBC.
As the war rages on overhead, nurses in the bunker are doing their best to keep the children’s spirits up. They sing songs and play games during air raids, reports TIME, and have even celebrated two birthdays while in the basement.
Crews are working to evacuate as many children from the hospital as quickly and as safely as possible. Some will be moved to a larger hospital in western Ukraine, where conditions are more stable and supplies more plentiful.
From there, they will attempt to move the children out of the country and into hospitals in Poland.