In March 2022, a group of Southampton clinicians embarked on an important mission to evacuate 21 Ukrainian children with cancer and bring them to the UK so they could continue their treatment.

The children ranged in ages from babies to teenagers and all had different types of cancers and were at different stages of their treatments.

The team was led by Dr Michael Griksaitis, consultant paediatric intensivist at University Hospital Southampton and the Faculty of Medicine’s Year 4 Deputy Lead.

Dr Griksaitis tells Medically Speaking how the trip was organised, the challenges they faced and whether they would do it again.

How did the mission to evacuate 21 Ukrainian children come about?

The Polish health care system has done a superb job of supporting a huge number of Ukrainians with health needs. However, the system was getting overwhelmed by the paediatric cancer cases and a request for help was placed and the UK government and NHS England responded to offer help. I got involved due to our expertise and skill in moving critically ill children using flight transport. 

Image credit UHS

How complicated/challenging was it to organise a trip like this, given the circumstances?

It was a very easy decision to say yes to the trip, but the practicalities were more challenging. For example, we had to establish a team large enough to carry this out without impacting on our own clinical service and without putting the children at risk. Fortunately, we had no shortage of volunteers of people on their days off, everyone just wanted to do what they could to help.

The support from the University Hospital of Southampton NHS Foundation Trust was excellent and allowed us to use our extra equipment.

There was also an amount of ‘unknowns’ which made it challenging. We did not know exactly how many people would be on the aircraft, what their health needs would be and had limited knowledge of the logistics of type of aircraft and space available until the day, which made it hard to plan accordingly.

Image credit UHS

What equipment did you have to take to ensure the children travelled safely?

We took all equipment ranging from basic first aid and minor ailment therapies, through to equipment to support children (and adults!) on full intensive care ‘life support’.

How did it feel flying to an area where there is conflict?

The thought that there was a conflict taking place didn’t actually register with any of us until we landed. Our focus was on the children and their families. We always felt safe and well-supported so we could just get on with the job we wanted to do. The children all had various requirements and were of all different ages – but what was clear was all of them needed treatment to give them a chance of survival. 

How many people were in your team?

We had an amazing team which consisted of two PICU doctors, three critical care technologists and four nurses, all from Southampton PICU. In addition, we had a paediatric oncology consultant and two play therapists from Birmingham Children’s’ Hospital, and we were supported by two translators. Everyone worked together, it was a great team to be a part of.

Image credit UHS

Were their parents able to come with them?

Yes, this was very important. Each child had one parent and then any siblings with them. The families had crossed a war zone and had their own needs in addition to the children we had went to collect, so we were able to give them the care they needed too. 

What happened after you landed back in the UK?

Getting the children and their families back to the UK so they can continue with vital treatment and receive whatever further medical help they might need was the absolute priority. Once we landed back in the UK, the children have been transferred to children’s oncology units across the country.  

Do you have any plans to do another trip like this?
This has been the most amazing and emotional experience the team and I have ever had. I’ve not led anything like this before in my life, but the team and I felt compelled to do whatever we could to help. We have offered our services should any other missions like this come about.

*In addition to being the Faculty of Medicine’s Year 4 Deputy Lead, Dr Griksaitis is the year 4 synoptic assessment module lead, teaches on the year 4 acute care module and supervises year 3 student projects and MMedSci students. He also offers elective placements on the PICU.

A trip of a lifetime: bringing children with cancer from Ukraine to England for treatment

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