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The head doctor became a fugitive. Her replacement became an alleged collaborator. But health care workers say they tried ‘every trick they knew’ to protect Ukrainian newborns and stop retreating Russians from spiriting them away

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At a children's hospital in Kherson, a nurse checks on orphaned children on Nov. 17, days after the withdrawal of occupying forces from the city.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

It was early April when Russian soldiers came to the children’s hospital in Kherson and told head doctor Inna Holodnyak that she had to co-operate with the occupying forces. When she refused, they menacingly gave her a day to think about it.

Dr. Holodnyak couldn’t stomach the soldiers’ demands that she raise the Russian flag over the Kherson Regional Children’s Hospital and record a grateful propaganda video. Instead of reconsidering her answer, she used those 24 hours to go into hiding in plain sight.

The 56-year-old pediatrician moved out of her home and into a friend’s house. After her driver was abducted off the streets – a bag was placed over his head while he was driven to an unknown location and interrogated about her whereabouts – she took to disguising herself whenever she went outside. “I always wore shorts, T-shirts, sunglasses, a big hat and a bandana,” she said, laughing. “Even my close friends didn’t recognize me when they passed me on the street.”

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Head doctor Inna Holodnyak, and some of the Ukrainian symbols she brought back to her office.

Dr. Holodnyak returned to her office on Nov. 12, the day after Ukrainian troops re-entered the city after a 256-day occupation. Her seven months on the lam – she was in contact with her team throughout – is only part of the astonishing tale of how doctors, nurses and other staff at the hospital managed to continue delivering care to Kherson’s sick children while thwarting the Russians at every opportunity.

Cut off from the rest of Ukraine, and with Russia supplying only basic vitamins and anti-flu pills, the hospital began something of an underground railroad to make sure children had the medicines they needed.

A network of volunteers risked their lives – and put up with being repeatedly interrogated by both Russian and Ukrainian intelligence – to bring medications from other parts of Ukraine across a front line that was fixed just west of Kherson for most of the year.

“It was done through personal connections – the personal connections of the parents of the patients and the connections of the professionals in our hospital,” Dr. Holodnyak explained in an interview in her office, where the sound of an artillery battle was audible throughout the day Thursday.

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Anesthesiologist Oleksandr Shmako recalls how he and his colleagues scoured Ukraine to bring newborns to the hospital.

During the occupation, hospital staff would frequently brave such shelling and go into the surrounding villages to retrieve babies born during the conflict and bring them to the hospital’s neonatal ward, the only one of its kind in the region. Anesthesiologist Oleksandr Shmako said he and other members of the neonatal team drove across the battlefields of southern Ukraine “a dozen times, maybe more” to bring newborns to the hospital.

“We were driving back and forth across the Antonivskiy Bridge before it was attacked, and then we were using the pontoon bridge the Russians built,” he said, referring to the main span across the Dnipro River, which was hit repeatedly by Ukrainian forces trying to sever Russian supply lines.

Dr. Shmako said the team “got used to” the constant sounds of explosions, but crossing the river under Ukrainian fire made him nervous. “When you’re on the pontoons and you see there are [Russian] soldiers on the same pontoon as you, you are praying they do not get hit.” (The Russians destroyed both the remains of the bridge and the pontoon replacement as they withdrew from the city last week.)

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Children's paintings line the hospital walls. Volunteers took great risks to bring medication to the children from across the front lines, in other parts of Ukraine.

The team’s biggest victory came right at the end of the occupation.

As the Russians prepared to leave Kherson, they tried to convince residents to evacuate to the east bank of the Dnipro, which remains under Russian control.

When the occupation authorities came to the children’s hospital, they found that every patient – including 10 healthy orphans who have been living at the hospital since the war started – was either in intensive care or had been intubated, suggesting they could not be safely transferred anywhere.

“Our reanimation and anesthesiology teams did amazing work – they did everything to pretend those children could not be transported. They used every trick they knew,” Dr. Holodnyak said.

But among such triumphs were difficult moments. After Dr. Holodnyak went into hiding, she was replaced by her deputy, Victor Burdovitsyn, who proved willing to do whatever the Russians asked of him.

At the start of the war, Dr. Holodnyak agreed to store medical records from the local police hospital so they wouldn’t fall into Russian hands. Dr. Burdovitsyn – who put a Russian flag in Dr. Holodnyak’s office and kept a copy of the Russian constitution on the desk – immediately handed the records over, with unknown repercussions for Ukrainian police officers who were still in Kherson.

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A worker removes a Russian billboard in Kherson, where authorities allege the Russian occupiers may have committed hundreds of war crimes.

Ukraine says it has recovered evidence of more than 400 war crimes committed while Kherson was under Russian rule, including the bodies of 63 people who appear to have been tortured before they were killed.

Dr. Burdovitsyn, who fled the city ahead of its liberation by Ukrainian forces, has been officially placed under suspicion of high treason.

Staff at the hospital say that during his tenure Dr. Burdovitsyn also approved the transfer of several Ukrainian children for treatment in Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The staff said it wasn’t clear if the children’s parents had consented to the transfers or how those children can be reunited with their parents now that they are on opposite sides of the front line.

The occupation of Kherson is over, but the hospital is still dealing with the fallout. Ahead of their withdrawal from the city, the Russians destroyed the city’s electricity, water and heating systems. At the children’s hospital this week, water was being delivered in plastic bottles while a single generator provided just enough power to keep the intensive care ward running.

The rest of the building was in the dark, without heat or working sinks and toilets. But Dr. Holodnyak vowed she and her staff would carry on. “We just need lights and heat and we can deliver full services. The doctors are here, the equipment is here, the medication is here,” she said. “It’s difficult, but it’s far better than it was under occupation.”

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Dr. Holodnyak is optimistic that, with the occupation over, her hospital can get back to work.

War in Ukraine: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel podcast

The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon was in Kherson as it celebrated the end of a months-long Russian occupation. He spoke with The Decibel about how Ukrainian forces’ return to the city might shape the larger conflict. Subscribe for more episodes.

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