It was holiday – Ukraine Independence Day – so Alla Nyzhnykovskya was leisurely cooking breakfast as her children played tag outside. It was as idyllic a scene as one could expect in Volodarske, a town on the fringes of a war zone, until an explosion shattered the windows and the children's peals of laughter turned to screams of horror.
Ms. Nyzhnykovskya's four-year-old, Danyo, propelled 10 metres by the blast, was dead. Her son Mykola, 11, who had happened upon an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade, suffered almost indescribable injuries.
"He had no legs, no arm – they were gone; he had wounds everywhere and there was a lot of blood," Ms. Nyzhnykovskya said, choking back tears as she recalled the scene. "But he was conscious. He was alive."
A nurse fashioned makeshift tourniquets, stemming the bleeding enough to save Mykola's life. He was rushed to a nearby military hospital for emergency surgery, then airlifted to a children's hospital.
From the day of the blast, last Aug. 24, until the end of October, Mykola got good care, but he was destined to be a triple amputee with few prospects – until a group of Canadian doctors who were working on a medical mission in Ukraine heard about the boy's plight.
Within a month, Mykola and his mom – sponsored by the Canada Ukraine Foundation – were on their way to Canada, and the boy has since been getting treatment at Shriners Hospital for Children in Montreal.
On Thursday, nine months after the fateful blast, Mykola sported brand-new, bright green running shoes to show off his prosthetic legs and posed shyly for cameras as he practised tying his laces with his myoelectric arm prosthesis. (The family agreed to tell the story to promote a fund to support the boy's future care and education.)
Asked if he feels rancour toward the combatants who left the grenade lying around that maimed him badly, Mykola shrugs and makes a face. His mother, more diplomatically, says: "We prefer to look to the future, not the past."
Mykola also has little to say about the details of his treatment, other than to say: "Some days it's not too hard, some days it's not pleasant."
Like many a 12-year-old boy, however, he is eager to talk about hockey – he's a Montreal Canadiens fan – and video games, his favourite being Blockade 3D, which consists of a lot of shooting and blowing things up.
Reggie Hamdy, the orthopedic surgeon who oversees Mykola's care, says it's rewarding to see a gravely wounded child regain his childhood.
"When Mykola first came here, he couldn't stand, he couldn't walk and he had an uncertain future. Now he's walking, he's smiling and one day, he'll be running and, if he's wearing long pants, no one will even know he has prosthetics," he said.
Dr. Hamdy said child amputees have an advantage because they heal quickly and adapt well to their prosthetic limbs. But they are also a challenge because they are still growing, meaning the prostheses have to be constantly adjusted and updated, which is costly and medicalizes their lives.
While Mykola's injuries were extensive – in addition to losing three limbs, he lost part of his skull, and has severe facial scars, a badly damaged eye, extensive abdominal injuries and numerous pieces of shrapnel in his body – almost miraculously, he did not suffer brain damage.
While Dr. Hamdy marvels at Mykola's recovery, he says the circumstances that left the boy wounded sicken him.
"The explosives that did this, they're made to look like toys and they're designed to cause maximum physical and emotional damage," the surgeon said. "It's a way of thinking that's perverse."
According to the United Nations Secretary-General expert on the impact of armed conflict on children, there are more than 110 million land mines of various types – plus millions more unexploded bombs, shells and grenades – that remain hidden around the world, posing a risk to unsuspecting children. And when children are maimed by weapons of war, they rarely have access to top-notch medical care and rehabilitative services, the way Mykola does.
Ms. Nyzhnykovskya says she does not have the words to express how grateful she is. Before coming to Canada, she says, the only thing she knew about the country was that it was home to Terry Fox, "a man who only had one leg but could do anything."
Then she reaches down, clenches her son's shoulder and smiles wistfully.