Save, in turn: life, limbs, sight. Correspondence from a field hospital


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April 21, 2023

Save, in turn: life, limbs, sight. Correspondence from a field hospital

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

You don’t need to read the news in a field hospital. The wounds of the patients show what is happening at the front.

Photo by Still Miracle Photography

One of the doctors perched on a stretcher. A group of medics was also waiting at the entrance. This hospital, formerly civilian, was first abandoned due to the ongoing war, and then occupied by medical units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

They had earlier received information that another wounded man was being transported to them. Four soldiers rode in a column. One car passed, while the other was blown up by a mine. Two died on the spot, two were injured.

The first one arrived. A young soldier. They put him in a wheelchair, but in shock he jumped out of it and hopped through the corridor on one leg. After the nurse’s pleas, he sat back in the wheelchair and they brought him to the stretcher, where the surgeon was preparing to operate. He quickly pulled the shard out of his foot and sewed it up.

His companion was to arrive second. A military medical team was waiting for him. According to the doctor, 54-year-old Rostislav, this is the worst moment: “Everything inside me tenses up then. You don’t know who they’ll bring or in what condition. Will they be able to move on their own or will we need a stretcher?”

When the ambulance arrives, everyone rushes in. The wounded person cannot move on their own. His arm and head are bandaged, and he’s holding a napkin to his bloody eye. The doctors take him straight to the operating room.

Stabilization point

A medical company and a medical brigade appeared in this town in southern Ukraine shortly before the Ukrainian army recaptured Kherson. This is one of the hospitals where wounded soldiers advancing towards this city were sent. Medics ask not to write where exactly the facility is located. Especially since it has already been shelled once–the building has lost some of its windows. In recent days they have been barricaded with sandbags.

Company soldiers carry a soldier on a stretcher down a dark corridor straight to an improvised operating room. This is led by Nazar, a military surgeon with many years of experience, who for security reasons does not give his real name.

The injured man has a cut on his left cheek, a wound on his right eyebrow, chin, shoulder and forearm, as well as an eye injury. For Nazar and his team, this is an almost mechanical job. In less than 50 minutes, they stop the bleeding, apply makeshift stitches, bandages, administer painkillers and antibiotics. Thanks to this, the patient is ready for the road ahead–to a better equipped hospital, where specialists will take care of him.

“Military medicine is based on three principles: to save, in turn, life, limbs and sight. This patient’s life is not in danger. Neither are limbs. What will happen to his right eye is unknown–it is intact, but the eyeball has been damaged,” says Nazar.

He adds: “We are just starting here. We only have two operating tables. There is a lack of an ophthalmologist and tools with which we could operate on the eye.

Nine years of study

In the south, the front has accelerated exceptionally in recent months. The Ukrainian army was successfully breaking through the Russian defenses and inevitably approaching Kherson. Nazar wouldn’t need to track information to know what was going on. The wounds with which the soldiers arrive show the nature of the action.

“If they are defending and the enemy is bombarding them with shells, they will mostly have fragmentation wounds from artillery fire. In the event of an attack, there will be wounds from mine explosions,” he explains.

Indeed. In the three days I spend in the hospital, most of the wounded have shrapnel wounds on their legs, the most telltale sign left by mines. They are intended not to kill, but to injure, so that the unit has to help the injured and be temporarily excluded from operations. Mines are an effective inhibitor for advancing troops. Although most countries in the world undertake not to use anti-personnel mines (Russia has not signed the relevant treaty), they are widely used.

Medical units are behind the front–close enough to be able to quickly deliver the wounded to them but far enough for the doctors to be reasonably safe.

“In an emergency like this, we need to save the people and retreat to safety. You have to train a military surgeon for nine years. It’s a big expense for the state. A surgeon costs as much as a hundred military men, and yet during his service he can save many more lives than a hundred,” explains Nazar.

Therefore, after the shelling, his entire unit left until the situation calmed down.

Only in time of war

Due to the scale of this war, it was not only military doctors, like Nazar, that were sent to the front. Those who were mobilized, most of whom volunteered in the first days after the Russian invasion on February 24, were also sent.

57-year-old Pavel, like Nazar, is a surgeon. He worked as a civilian all his life. His specialties are cardiac surgery and trauma surgery. After the Russian attack, he took his granddaughters from the city of Dnipro, in the eastern part of the country, to Lviv. He went to work for a few days, but there wasn’t much to do. His conscience tormented him to help the war effort. He believed that he would be able to do more there, and his knowledge would be more useful. He applied to the draft board, where he was quickly assigned.

“I have two sons, but I decided that it is better if I serve,” says Pavel.

His sons–a 33-year-old and a 21-year-old–took up volunteer work, like many Ukrainians in recent months. When the war is over, Pavel doesn’t want to stay in the army. He says he will return to civilian life, where he will continue to work in his profession.

Difficult conditions

Cold air seeps through the leaky and broken windows in the hospital. Military medics operate in field conditions: there is no heating, and there is also no electricity for most of the day. Then the energy is provided by generators that are turned on at fixed times and in emergencies to save lives. That’s why all the staff wear thick clothes and headlamps with which they illuminate the dark corridors. In the evenings, when it gets really cold and dark, they light candles. They then talk about how much they miss home.

However, Pavlo does not complain about these conditions. He says that for many years they did not have proper medical equipment in the hospital in Dnipro, so he got used to such operating conditions. The hardships of everyday life are nothing that he can’t cope with.

So when a man with a shrapnel wound above the chest was brought in, Pavlo took care of him efficiently. He washed, anesthetized, pulled out the splinter stuck in the wound. The patient, a medic himself, was surprisingly calm. He explained that he had run over a mine, and constantly, calmly assured Pavlo that he was fine. Pavlo sewed up his wound. Then, together with the staff, they tightly covered the injured man with a thermal blanket so that the shock would pass. His whole body shook in the bed. Only when it stopped did the rescue team take him out of the hospital.

“His life is not in danger, but he has a long rehabilitation ahead of him. At least a month and a half, says Pavlo. “His clavicle is in pieces.”

The longed-for peace

Svitlana is the same age as Pavlo. She volunteered for service for a similar reason to him. “I went instead of my son. He really wanted to join the army, but he has bronchial asthma, so they didn’t accept him,” she says.

She knew that the war had broken out in earnest even before Vladimir Putin announced it and the first cities were attacked. An air corridor runs over her backyard and since 2014, at the beginning of the war in Donbas, planes to the Donetsk oblast have been flying this way.

“On the morning of February 24, the first plane flew over before war was declared. It was only later that I read that it had actually begun,” recalls Svitlana.

On the second day of the war, she volunteered. She comes from a village in the Cherkasy oblast, where she joined the territorial defense. She cooked and provided medical assistance. They made windlass tourniquets out of fabric and improvised windlasses (bands that tighten and stop bleeding in an emergency), because in the first weeks of the conflict they were in great demand. It was also cold then, and they warmed themselves only by the stove. The cold of the hospital isn’t so unbearable for her. She would return home at night and come to the unit in the morning.

When it became clear that her oblast was safe, Svitlana reported to the draft board. At first they did not accept her, saying that they mainly needed young, strong men. The second time, however, she was assigned to one of the battalions in the rear.

Initially, she was afraid to look at the seriously injured, especially since most of them are her children’s age. Everything changed when she herself ended up in the hospital with rheumatism for two weeks. Soldiers were brought there. Some were missing limbs, with mangled bodies, but the doctors did everything they could to save them.

“I pulled myself together then,” admits Svitlana.

When she came to the Kherson region as a paramedic, she helped everyone who needed it without hesitation. On the second day of full-scale war, Svitlana also began to write poetry. It’s her way of dealing with stress.

In her poems, she praises the Ukrainian soldiers and waits for the longed-for peace, so that no one else will be brought from the front.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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