By Sara Bondell - November 29, 2022
A year and a half ago, Dr. Halyna Derzhko began a new chapter in her life after retiring from a nearly 50-year career as a pediatrician in a small town in Western Ukraine. She was ready to embrace her new, quiet life when an injury from a fall led to a melanoma diagnosis. She had several surgeries and was being treated with an immunotherapy drug, but her treatment came to a screeching halt when Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
“Continuing treatment was now becoming impossible, not only for me, but for most cancer patients in my country, thus sealing their fate,” Derzhko said. “Not only were homes being destroyed, but hospitals and clinics were not spared in the rocket attacks.”
In Central Ukraine, Anatolii Pashkivskyi faced a similar fate. He had been battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma since 2015, and his town was bombed multiple times. He was working overtime at the armored factory. The stress was causing fatigue, night sweats and pain in his neck. He was able to get a scan but had to evacuate his town before anyone could read it.
“Doctors said they would treat patients with cancer, but only those who had already started on chemotherapy to finish the treatment. They wouldn’t start any new treatment,” Pashkivskyi said.
Both Derzhko and Pashkivskyi have family in the United States and were able to travel to Florida. They were finally safe, and it was time to turn their attention to their cancer care.
The International Patient Services Department at Moffitt Cancer Center assists patients and their families from other countries transfer their care to the cancer center. The team experienced a major influx of patients from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, but this was the first time they were coordinating care for patients from a country at war and for patients who needed financial assistance.
“Most countries in Europe have nationalized medicine, so rarely, a patient from Europe will carry international insurance that covers them outside their home. On top of that, these people are leaving their country with nothing, just leaving everything behind,” Martha Sanz, manager of International Patient Services, said. “We worked to obtain all the patient information firsthand, what records they have, the diagnosis, anything that we can use to put the information together to present the case to leadership for their approval.”
Derzhko, who arrived in March, was the first Ukrainian case the department handled. International patient coordinator Gina El Mouallem worked with her family and immediately felt a connection to them.
“I was born in Lebanon, and we always had war,” El Mouallem said. “So, I really understood what situation she could have been arriving from. That’s why every time we have a Ukrainian patient, I just try as much as possible to do anything I can for them.”
El Mouallem was able to help coordinate translation for all the medical records, get financial assistance approved and set up appointments at Moffitt. New scans and blood work showed the immunotherapy treatment was no longer working and Derzhko’s tumor was growing. Her care team switched her to a different immunotherapy, and in just a few months it has killed off the cancerous cells. She will next have surgery to remove the tumor.
“I am hoping for a positive outcome and will be forever grateful to Moffitt,” Derzhko said. “I am also humbled that I was given this chance to fight for my life when so many in my native country will not have the same opportunity.”
“The whole situation encourages us and gives us this will to take care of these patients even more,” El Mouallem said. “Knowing they don’t have houses anymore and won’t be able to go see their friends, their neighbors, their relatives, we just want them to feel the warmth, that we are here for them.”
Pashkivskyi felt that same warmth from Moffitt. Since arriving in Sarasota in April, International Patient Services Supervisor Marianne Brandt has helped coordinate his care. His disease still looks stable so he will continue to be monitored.
“I am so much happier to be here,” Pashkivskyi said. “When leaving Ukraine, people would tell me I looked like I was dying. I feel much better here, and I think my cancer will go into remission.”
The International Patient Services Department is currently coordinating care for more refugees, and because there is a large population of Ukrainians in the Sarasota area, they expect to see more cases as more arrive.
“This is extremely rewarding for us,” Sanz said. “Everyone feels helpless towards this senseless war, and for us to be able to accept some of these patients who are coming to us asking for help is very rewarding and satisfying.”