MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — First lady Jill Biden traveled to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee on Friday to meet with Ukrainian children with cancer and their families fleeing the war and seeking treatment in the U.S.
Biden was greeted when she arrived at the Memphis hospital by president and CEO James Downing; Rick Shadyac, CEO of ALSAC, which raises funds for St. Jude; and actress Marlo Thomas, the daughter of hospital founder and late actor Danny Thomas.
Biden’s stop in Memphis was the first leg of a trip Friday that also includes travel to Colorado for a Democratic National Committee finance event in Denver, the White House said.
Her visit to St. Jude, considered a leading researcher of cancer and other life-threatening diseases that affect children, is part of her and President Joe Biden’s so-called Cancer Moonshot effort, which aims to reduce the cancer death rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years.
Improving the lives of children with cancer is a main goal of St. Jude, founded in 1962. Using mostly private donations, families with children who are patients at St. Jude never receive a bill for treatment, travel, housing and food. Marlo Thomas is St. Jude’s national outreach director.
Jill Biden met with a cancer survivor and toured a laboratory where doctors research how T-cells can fight pediatric brain tumors. She also visited privately with Ukrainian pediatric cancer patients and their relatives.
On Monday, St. Jude received four Ukrainian children, ages 20 months to 8 years old. In addition to receiving cancer treatment, the children also will get therapy to address their psychological, emotional and cultural needs, the hospital said.
Biden said she heard about their journey to the U.S. and watched the children play with Play-Doh.
“They seemed comfortable and they didn’t seem sad,” Biden said. “They were just like normal kids, like normal families. It was just, it’s amazing.”
Biden also told hospital officials and reporters that she was inspired by the work done by St. Jude and how it turns “devastation into hope.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, St. Jude teamed up with foundations in Poland to evacuate children with cancer from the war zone, Downing said.
The collaborative has helped more than 600 patients by translating medical records and coordinating convoys from the Ukrainian city of Lviv to the Unicorn Marian Wilemski Clinic, a summer resort converted into a triage center in Poland. From there, sick children have been transported to cancer centers in Europe, Canada and the U.S., Downing said.
The four St. Jude patients traveled aboard a U.S. government-operated medical transport aircraft from Krakow, along with a St. Jude doctor who had been in Poland with them, the hospital said. A second group of Ukrainian patients could arrive at the hospital next week, Downing said. The U.S. has granted patients and their families accelerated immigration parole status, Downing said.
In 2019, St. Jude began working with the government and hospitals in Ukraine to assess the level of care they could provide. Ties were established with four Ukrainian hospitals and other entities in Poland, Moldova and Romania, Downing said.
Within hours of the Russian invasion, St. Jude was asking its partners how it could help, Downing said.
“In those early hours of the war, it was clear that, over time, children were going to have to be evacuated,” Downing said.
Downing said he knows of at least two children who have died in the process of moving from Ukraine to Poland.
“It is a journey that is life threatening, in and of itself,” Downing said. “I think it was Marlo who said these children face two wars — the war of fighting cancer and the war in their homeland.”
Part of the drive to help Ukrainian children with cancer involves translating their medical records. St Jude established a network of 200 translators across the world who work on patient records.
A Memphis doctor, Lana Yanishevski, and her husband, Yuri, have been involved in that effort. The Jewish couple fled anti-Semitism in Ukraine and arrived in Memphis in 1991. They received asylum and have become U.S. citizens. Lana is a pediatrician and Yuri works as a engineer for ALSAC.
With help from Yuri, who converts photographed and emailed medical charts into a more easily readable format, Lana translates them from Russian or Ukrainian into English. She then sends them to St. Jude, which distributes them to the proper hospitals.
During a Zoom interview with The Associated Press, Lana briefly held up a medical chart for a child who has an inoperable brain tumor and is under palliative care. She does not know the child’s location, and the chart was not legible.
“No hope for survival, and then he’s dealing with war,” Lana said. “Imagine those parents.”
Lana and Yuri said they have felt depressed and helpless as they’ve watched the war unfold in Kyiv, where they lived and still have friends and relatives. But now, they feel like they are making a tangible difference.
“That was kind of like a light inside me, against all this darkness,” Yuri Yanishevski said. “It makes me feel great, makes me feel useful.”
The story was corrected to show the children are 20 months to 8 years old.