A Children’s Hospital in Ukraine Becomes a Scene of Destruction

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Daryna Vertetska was sitting with her 8-year-old daughter in Ukraine’s largest children’s hospital on Monday morning when Russian missiles began to ring out in the sky.

Her daughter, Kira, was receiving treatment for her cancer as the explosions boomed across the capital, Kyiv.

“We decided not to interrupt it,” Ms. Vertetska said of the treatment.

As Kira continued her treatment, a missile slammed directly into the Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital, triggering an explosion so loud it defied description, she said. Shards of flying glass cut into the child’s skin.

“She was very frightened,” said Ms. Vertetska, 33. Bloodied but alive, the pair scrambled through the smoke and dust to safety.

Now, the hospital where Kira had spent five months receiving lifesaving treatment is gone, another medical facility destroyed by Russia in its yearslong invasion of Ukraine.

As exhausted rescue workers finished sifting through the rubble of the hospital on Tuesday, doctors and nurses raced to help the scores of critically ill children who now must find care elsewhere, including many undergoing intensive cancer treatments like Kira.

No children were killed at the hospital on Monday, but its destruction marked one of the worst days of violence against Ukrainian civilians in months, with more than 30 people killed in Kyiv alone. The Russian assault on Monday targeted the capital and cities throughout the country.

“I don’t want to, but I think I’m losing hope,” Ms. Vertetska said.

The attack at the hospital left young patients sitting on the street with IV drips attached to their arms. The bombing also damaged Ukraine’s most sophisticated laboratory for testing and confirming certain types of cancer, the Ukrainian health ministry said, adding that it was evaluating the state of the equipment to see what could be restored.

“It is terrifying because this is the only reference laboratory in Ukraine that confirms all oncohematological diseases,” Dr. Natalia Molodets, the head of the pediatric hematology department at the Odesa regional children’s hospital, said, referring to blood cancers.

Even in the first weeks of the war, when Russian forces were trying to seize Kyiv, the laboratory continued to operate, according to Dr. Molodets.

“For our children, it is vital,” she said.

Russia has targeted Ukrainian medical facilities since the first days of the war, a pattern outlined by a range of international rights organizations. The bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol in the weeks after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine was an early indication of Moscow’s brutal tactics.

As of this April, the World Health Organization said it had verified around 1,682 direct attacks on medical facilities using heavy weapons, resulting in 128 deaths and 288 injuries of staff members and patients.

Around the same time that the children’s hospital was hit on Monday, debris from another Russian missile crashed into the Isida maternity hospital and a neighboring private clinic elsewhere in Kyiv. Nine people were killed in that strike, including two children.

Another two children — Maksym Symaniuk, 10, and his 9-year-old sister Nastia — were also killed by falling missile debris at their home on Monday, according to the Ukrainian Karate Federation.

On Tuesday, Volodymyr Zhovnir, director of Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital, delivered testimony about the strike at an emergency meeting at United Nations Security Council.

“Both children and adults screamed and cried from fear and the wounded from pain,” he said. “It was a real hell.” More than 300 people were injured, including eight children, according to Mr. Zhovnir. Two adults were also killed, including one doctor.

At the Security Council meeting, Moscow denied that it had targeted the facility, despite analyzed video footage and missile fragments collected by the Ukrainian security services that suggest the hospital was hit by a Russian Kh-101 cruise missile.

International organizations including UNICEF and the Victor Pinchuk Foundation in Ukraine have pledged to help rebuild the hospital. But with some 7,000 complex surgeries performed at Ohmatdyt annually, doctors say it will not be easily replaced.

President Biden, who is welcoming Western leaders to Washington for the 75th anniversary of NATO on Tuesday, issued a statement saying Monday’s attack served as “a horrific reminder of Russia’s brutality.”

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Tuesday called the strike on the children’s hospital “particularly despicable,” adding that it would only redouble Western military support for Ukraine.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, alongside Ukraine’s visiting foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, Mr. Blinken noted that he had personally visited the hospital and met with sick and wounded children there during one of his several trips to Ukraine.

Children who are treated at Ohmatdyt are often unable to evacuate to the hospital’s bomb shelter during regular air raids because moving them would interrupt their care. Many of the patients are now being transferred to other hospitals across Ukraine, including in Odesa and Lviv.

As the nation’s top children’s hospital, Ohmatdyt was also the place where children who experienced intense physical and emotional trauma were sent for treatment. The staff is trained to handle some of the most difficult medical situations. But many said nothing could have prepared them for the horror of Monday’s attack.

Nazar Borozniuk, a physical therapist at the hospital, said it was pure luck that no children were killed.

A video clip he filmed from inside the hospital in the aftermath of the attack showed ceiling panels and broken glass on the floor. “This is how everything looks now,” he says in the video. “I hope nothing falls on our heads.”

Speaking by phone on Monday evening, Mr. Borozniuk described the harrowing scenes that had played out in front of patients and staff at the hospital. “We started evacuating children, parents and families,” he said.

The hospital staff alongside emergency medical workers and volunteers spent Monday tending to the wounded. Other parts of the hospital, like the emergency room, continued to function even as firefighters rained water over the ruins to keep fires from spreading.

“I couldn’t even pick up the phone because my hands were covered in blood from helping out,” Mr. Borozniuk said. “I just knew what needed to be done with the children: Provide first aid, help those who were injured and evacuate those who needed it,” he added.

The scene was so chaotic that Mr. Borozniuk said his feelings “just disappeared.” But as he drove home on Monday evening, hours after the hospital was hit, he finally began to process what had happened. “There will definitely be psychological consequences for everyone,” he said.

“We are all human.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting from Kyiv, Dzvinka Pinchuk from Odesa, Eve Sampson from New York and Michael Crowley from Washington.

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