Like all good doctors, Volodymyr Hlovatskyi knows that smoking isn’t a good idea. So he smiles when asked why he picked up the habit a few months ago.
“It’s stress, you know,” he replies, before quickly adding that he smokes electronic cigarettes, which are a little healthier. “Nicotine is not good. As a doctor I know this. But it’s like a meditation for me.”
Stress hardly describes Dr. Hlovatskyi’s workload. He is the medical director of the Halychyna “center of complex rehabilitation”, the largest facility in Ukraine dedicated to treating soldiers who have lost limbs. Before the war this complex outside Lviv served civilians and Dr. Hlovatskyi, 30, had never seen a battlefield injury. Now he has 160 war amputees in his care, and his staff of five doctors, eight nurses and a couple of physiotherapists can’t keep up with the demand.
The centre’s caseload has more than tripled since the war started on Feb. 24, and the waiting list for treatment continues to grow. Dr. Hlovatskyi says the official estimate for the number of soldiers who have lost arms, hands or legs in battle is about 17,000, but he acknowledges that the real total is likely far higher.
He spends much of his time managing the centre’s admissions and trying to cram in as many wounded veterans as possible. On most days the rows of names on his computer screen seem faceless. “But when they call to me and ask me, or when the mother calls about their son, it’s terrible for me,” he says. “It’s very hard to listen to them and say, ‘We don’t have places. You must wait.’ Each of these cases, it’s a human life.”
As he strolls through the brightly lit six-storey building, Dr. Hlovatskyi points out rooms filled with exercise equipment and places where physiotherapists help soldiers learn how to use prosthetic legs and arms. There are ultrasound machines to treat injuries, and the hallways are lined with motivational posters.
But there’s also a constant shortage of medicine, prosthetics and the kind of specialized rehab equipment that’s common in Europe and Canada. Some international charities have stepped in to help, and a British organization is considering covering the cost of a major expansion that would increase the centre’s capacity to 500. But that’s still a long way off, and meanwhile the war rages on.
One of the biggest challenges here is addressing the psychological side of rehabilitation. Dr. Hlovatskyi says the military does a good job preparing young soldiers to face the possibility of dying. What they aren’t prepared for is the prospect of suffering a life-changing injury.
“They say to me, ‘I thought that I could die in war. But I didn’t think that I can be injured and be disabled,’” he says. “It’s very hard. It’s the start of their lives and their life has changed, and they don’t understand.”
As a result, many amputees turn to drugs and alcohol, while others arrive convinced they will recover quickly and return to active duty. It’s up to Dr. Hlovatskyi and his team to tell them that barely 5 per cent of amputees return to any form of active service. For most, the harsh reality can be a lot to deal with.
Major Viktor Deineka, 49, should have been more prepared than most soldiers for the dangers of combat. He’s been in the Ukrainian army for 30 years and has seen plenty of death and destruction on the front line.
His wife is a serving soldier as well and was with him on Feb. 24 when a cluster bomb slammed into their position in Luhansk and wounded 17 people. Maj. Deineka lost both legs in the blast, but his wife was unhurt.
Even though he was wounded almost nine months ago, he still can’t face his 70-year-old mother and show her the extent of his injuries. And so he hasn’t told her. Instead, he spends hours every day climbing stairs and walking around the hospital grounds on his prosthetic legs, hoping to perfect his stride so that when he does see his mother she may not notice. “I’ll put on my uniform, go and see her and then decide what to tell her,” he says.
Down the hall, Oleksandr Mazur is sitting with his wife, Angelina, talking about their future. He’s 21 and joined the military on the first day of the war, determined to defend his country. He met Angelina, 18, while on a patrol in her village in the Kherson region. They struck up a conversation and soon fell in love. A couple of months later, on July 17, he stepped on a landmine. The blast tore apart his left leg and badly scarred his right.
The couple stuck together and got married on Aug. 20. Ms. Mazur comes to visit him in Halychyna when she can and on this occasion brought her pet mouse to cheer him up. He hopes to return to his unit, but his wife talks more about going to school and starting a family. If he does go back to the front line, though, he has her support. “This unit is not only his family, it’s my family, too,” she says.
In another room, Tetiana Fedoriv is paying a visit to her husband, Olek, 39, who joined the army last March and lost his legs five months later during a tank battle in Severodonetsk, in eastern Ukraine.
She only found out he was injured through social media, and he almost died on the operating table. Now she’s determined that he return to Kyiv and take up his old job as a maintenance worker. “The most important thing is he has his life,” she says. “He must do something now. He must develop himself.”
Dr. Hlovatskyi listens to her speak, nods slowly and takes a long drag on his cigarette.