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Natalia Apalkova looks in a mirror at a rehabilitation center in Lviv on March 11. Ms. Apalkova received reconstructive facial surgery through a program launched last year by Unbroken, the national rehabilitation centre in Lviv.Olga Ivashchenko/The Globe and Mail

Natalia Apalkova had just finished eating lunch at her sister’s home in Ukraine’s Luhansk region, in the country’s east, when a mine exploded. The home’s ceiling crashed down and shrapnel tore through Ms. Apalkova’s face and arms. When the heat hit her body, she said, she was shocked. All she could feel were her eyes and ears.

These were the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion. With Ukraine in crisis, it was a full week before Ms. Apalkova was finally treated for her shrapnel wounds and burns.

Ms. Apalkova managed to escape before her city fell under Russian control. She now lives in Rivne, a city in Ukraine’s west, with her mother and sister.

Although her wounds eventually healed, the attack left her face badly scarred. Breathing was difficult because of an injury to her nose, and she could barely open her mouth, which made eating complicated and smiling nearly impossible.

But earlier this month, sitting on a hospital bed in Lviv, Ms. Apalkova was smiling. She had received reconstructive facial surgery as part of a program for injured Ukrainians launched last year by Unbroken, the national rehabilitation centre in Lviv, in partnership with the Ukrainian office of the cosmetics company L’Oréal.

The program, funded by L’Oréal and promoted in Ukraine under the tagline “No Time for Beauty” (the “no” is always crossed out), treats visible injuries, such as scars and burns, endured by Ukrainian men and women during the war. Participants receive free consultations from specialists in fields such as plastic surgery, aesthetic medicine and mental health, who determine courses of treatment that could involve surgery, scar resurfacing or cosmetic procedures. The costs of those treatments are covered by the program.

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Ms. Apalkova received an operation on her nasal passage to help with her breathing, and reconstructive surgery on her face that restored her appearance and muscular function.Olga Ivashchenko/The Globe and Mail

The aim is to undo some of the war’s physical toll and help survivors heal emotionally, after more than two years of intense fighting that has left both civilians and soldiers with disfiguring injuries. Ms. Apalkova, who is now 63, said her recent surgery in Lviv had made a difference, even if it couldn’t completely erase the damage.

“Like every ordinary woman, of course I would like to look beautiful, and for me it’s also important. But the most crucial is to recover, so my muscles work as they did before,” she said.

“This is the result of surgeries and doctors,” she said, smiling again. “These doctors and all of the staff of this hospital, they have golden hands.”

Ruslan Salynko, an oncologist and reconstructive surgeon who treated Ms. Apalkova, said an operation on her nasal passage had helped with her breathing, and reconstructive surgery on her face had restored her appearance and muscular function. The medical team sawed the temporalis muscle off her lower jaw and reattached it to the corner of her mouth to help with the symmetry of her smile. Dr. Salynko said this was the first time such an operation had been performed in Ukraine.

“Now we’re working on making it possible to fully smile again and ensure facial symmetry,” he said. “This is a very important thing, because the face is the first thing others pay attention to.” He said Ms. Apalkova may not need further operations, but that rehab can take from four to six months.

The program, he added, has been in high demand.

Antonina Pashnina, senior sustainability specialist at L’Oréal Ukraine, said the company initially wanted to help women who were injured, but quickly realized there was a need to help men as well, particularly those in the military. She said all Ukrainians over the age of 18 are allowed to participate.

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Oleksandr Kobzarev, the executive director of Unbroken, leads a presentation in Lviv on March 11. He says the program is a powerful symbol of hope for Ukrainians.Olga Ivashchenko/The Globe and Mail

“For our part, we believe that the return of beauty, the return of self-confidence, provides an opportunity to survive trauma, properly adapt to the future, learn to perceive yourself anew, to love yourself,” she said. The program, she added, was created to give people “hope and faith in themselves.”

Khrystyna Ruda, a clinical psychologist in Lviv, said she has met with more than 25 people participating in the program.

She said many are women who find it difficult to go out because of their scars. Some had social anxiety before their injuries, she said, and the change in their appearance has compounded their worry.

“There were times when it was easier for people to stay at home. It was easier for them to wear pants or a long dress, completely covered, than to go out,” she said. “If we try to cover a part of our body, we are trying to become relatively invisible. We try not to draw attention to ourselves.”

Oleksandr Kobzarev, executive director of Unbroken’s charitable foundation, said the program is a powerful symbol of hope for Ukrainians.

“We show people that life is not finished. You can have another chance,” he said. “It’s about the future. It’s about hope.”

With a report from Kateryna Hatsenko

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