How a Ukrainian boy with cancer and his mother survived a Russian missile strike on a children’s hospital

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Around 10:30 a.m. on July 8, minutes before a Russian missile crashed into kyiv’s main children’s hospital, 4-year-old Dima Dorontsov was waiting to receive his last dose of chemotherapy in the oncology ward, alongside his mother Viktoria Zavoloka.

He spent much of his life in hospitals. After spending nearly two years treating abdominal cancer in the modern Okhmatdyt hospital, he decided to move in. Most of the 15 other children around him were already hooked up to their drug dispensers, slowly releasing life-saving chemicals into their bloodstreams.

That’s when they heard the first distant sound of an explosion from the latest round of massive Russian missile strikes targeting kyiv and other Ukrainian cities that have killed 33 people and wounded 121, Zavoloka told the Kyiv Independent. Then, she said, they heard a closer explosion that set off alarms in nearby cars.

Another gunshot rattled the windows just after nurses asked parents to dress the children who were still in shorts and pajamas. Dima and other patients who were able to walk were heading down the corridors with their chaperones.

“After that, the head of the department simply managed to say: ‘Let’s unplug the children and move to a shelter’ – and the main blow happened,” Zavoloka said.

“Everything shook. Children started screaming. Some were crying. Windows were blown out,” she said.

As the nurses rushed to disconnect all the children from the medication dispensers, Zavoloka retrieved water for Dima, his documents and two small blankets. They took the stairs down to the basement with the other patients. Zavoloka remembers the fear he felt seeing broken glass and smoke and hearing the sound of sirens.

Quiet kyiv Neighborhood Hit by Massive Russian Attack

Editor’s note: Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on July 9 that nine people had been killed in the Syrets neighborhood apartment building following a Russian missile strike the day before. On a Monday morning, Nataliia Fedorenko and her mother felt lucky to survive their daily routine: walking their dog down the street.

“It was dark, there was dust everywhere,” she said. But what scared her most was the blood she saw on the floor as they went down the stairs.

“You could see that someone had passed by bleeding, and people’s footsteps had smeared the blood,” she said.

On the ground floor, more than a hundred people were crammed into an underground part of the hospital. Frightened children cried alongside caregivers, doctors, nurses and visitors. It was hard to breathe because of the smoke, while a female voice warned them over a loudspeaker: “Attention, a fire has broken out in the building.”

“I could see fear in Dima’s eyes, but he was behaving very well, he wasn’t crying,” Zavoloka said.

Children being treated for cancer are normally required to avoid contact with other people because their immune systems are severely weakened by the treatment. Except for the immobile children, who Zavoloka said were taken directly outside after the strike, most of the cancer patients gathered in the underground corridor, exposed to more human contact than many of them have seen in months.

Emergency and rescue personnel, along with medics and others, clear the rubble of the destroyed building of Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital after a Russian missile attack in the Ukrainian capital of kyiv, on July 8, 2024. (Roman Pilipey/AFP via Getty Images)

Fearing that waiting out a possible new strike in a crowd would be more dangerous for the children than going out, parents and nurses in the cancer ward decided to try to move elsewhere.

It was only a few minutes later, as they sat outside along the hospital walls with other patients, seeing numerous ambulances, police and firefighters rushing past them toward a large column of smoke, that Zavoloka began to understand what had happened.

“At first, we all thought the rocket had been intercepted and the debris had fallen somewhere on (the hospital’s) territory,” she said. Once outside, as their cellphones reconnected to telecommunications networks, the cellphones all around her began “ringing like crazy.”

Shortly after, children undergoing cancer treatment were guided to a newly constructed air raid shelter.

“There you start to relax, try not to cry and answer all the messages,” Zavoloka said.

The air raid warning had then stopped. Some parents returned to the cancer ward to collect essential items for their children, such as phones and medication.

How Russia Broke Through Ukrainian Air Defenses to Strike kyiv Children’s Hospital

Russia launched one of its deadliest attacks on kyiv on July 8, killing 33 people and wounding 121. Residential buildings and medical facilities were damaged, with a Russian missile hitting Ohkmatdyt, the country’s largest children’s medical center. Rather than proving that this is a serious illness, it was proven that Russian authorities had put security measures in place to protect civilians.

Zavoloka took on the task of wiping blood from the leg of a little girl named Kira whose mother had returned to get her medication. Kira was one of the weakest patients in the ward, injured by the shattered glass of her bed as her doctor disconnected her IV at the moment of impact.

“You sit next to this child, you wipe her blood and you ask yourself, ‘Why? Why did this have to happen to our children, who are fighting for their lives every day?’” Zavoloka said.

Although she wiped her hands afterwards, Zavoloka said the smell of blood lingered in her nose until she returned home with Dima late that evening.

But some Okhmatdyt patients, like Dima and Kira, who were in the middle of complex treatment, could not be evacuated from Ukraine’s most advanced children’s hospital even after it was bombed by Russia, for fear of their condition deteriorating rapidly without proper medication.

So doctors and nurses scrambled through the smoke and dust around the remaining hospital facilities to find the most essential medicines and medical supplies. One by one, they carried the items to the shelter and began connecting Kira and other critical patients to the drug dispensers.

Viktoria Zavoloka and her son Dima. (Courtesy)

At the time, Zavoloka said she and other parents still hoped to return to the service soon.

“We hadn’t seen the damage with our own eyes yet and we didn’t know that half of the toxicology building had been destroyed, as well as the windows all around it,” she said.

When they were able to connect to the Internet again on their mobile phones, they were able to see the extent of the damage thanks to the images shared on Telegram and Ukrainian media. Unlike the old hospital building, which partially collapsed, the new building, which houses the cancer ward, had broken windows and damage to the facade, but its structure remained intact.

Fortunately for Dima, who was also put in touch with the shelter’s drug distributor after the strike to receive his final dose of chemicals as part of the current treatment, he was later allowed to return home.

Around 4 p.m. that day, Dima and his mother were picked up by Dima’s father, who had driven for hours in a neighbor’s car from their village in Zhytomyr Oblast.

Dima is among 465 children who were temporarily evacuated from Okhmatdyt. According to a statement by the Ukrainian Health Ministry, 94 children were urgently transferred to other hospitals in kyiv after the attack. Another 68 patients remained in Okhmatdyt to continue their treatment.

‘I want Russians to feel it on their own skin’: Shock and anger at children’s hospital attack site

Nurse Olesia Filonenko was preparing for the first operation of the day at Kyiv’s Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital when she heard explosions “somewhere in the distance.” “Then, in one second, everything was blown away,” she told the Kyiv Independent. “Dust, smoke. We were all thrown out of the operating room.”

On July 10, a boy died in one of kyiv’s hospitals after being evacuated from the Okhmatdyt intensive care unit, according to Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Lyashko.

A few days later, in the comfort of their home, slowly recovering from the shocking experience, Zavoloka is anxiously looking for options to continue Dima’s treatment, like many other parents of Okhmatdyt patients.

“It is not known when Okhmatdyt will be restored,” she told the Kyiv Independent in a telephone interview as Dima’s joyful cries echoed in the background.

“He might start feeling unwell next Monday, and we might have to figure out where to treat him ourselves,” she said.

Viktoria Zavoloka and her three children. (Courtesy)

Zavoloka was contacted by the Ukrainian charitable foundation Tabletochki, which regularly provided expensive medicines to Dima, as well as to many other children with cancer treated at Okhmatdyt.

“We continue to help them as usual,” said Yuliya Nohovitsyna, the foundation’s representative. “As before, we buy unavailable medicines, pay for diagnostic examinations, buy special food and accommodate families from other cities in rented apartments.”

As it stated in a statement to the Kyiv Independent, the foundation is in contact with doctors from Okhmatdyt, other hospitals that are currently receiving their patients, and the patients’ parents about the possibility of evacuating the children abroad for further treatment.

Requests from parents wanting their children to be treated abroad under the SAFER Ukraine initiative have increased in recent days, according to Nohovitsyna.

But Zavoloka hopes to find opportunities to continue caring for Dima in Ukraine, where he has been happily playing with his older sister and younger brother since returning home after the attack, telling relatives that he “saw the blood and the rocket.”

“It seems that he was not affected by it, but he understands and remembers everything. Now he is glad that the doctor let him go home and he is distracted by this,” Zavoloka said.

But between calls with Dima’s doctor, communicating with the parents of other children being treated for cancer and the responsibility of caring for her three children, Zavoloka keeps thinking back to the moment the Russian missile crashed into the hospital grounds in Okhmatdyt.

“I constantly wonder what could have happened if that missile had hit just 50 meters closer to the new building,” she said, referring to the main hospital complex.

“Would we be lucky then? Would Dima be able to walk after this and would my other children ever see their mother again?”