To Sew Ukraine

A story about doctors, who devoted themself to volunteering on the Ukrainian East

Patriotism motivated us to be volunteers. Five years ago no one thought about volunteering, but now it saves our country,” Vladyslav Horbovets, a volunteer at the Pyrogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital says about his motivation to be a medical volunteer on the Ukrainian East.

The Pyrogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital was created more than two years ago in the midst of severe battles on the East, when the need for the doctors and nurses was high. It joined dozens of Ukrainian volunteer organizations who have been helping Army since then.

Dozens of death everyday because of the lack of medicaments and doctors. This how bad situation was. Today, many Ukrainians believe that volunteers saved many lives and they “sew” Ukraine. Two of them — Vladyslav Horbovets and Alina Naragan — joined the Pyrogov in 2015. They worked together quite a long time and helped hundreads of soldiers and civilians to recover.

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Before joining the Pirogov, Horbovets lived in Kyiv and worked at the Kyiv City Hospital №8. In ordinary life, he woke up every day early in the morning and went to the hospital where he occupied a position of a vascular surgeon. Each morning, he started his day with a freshly made pot of coffee and at least two cigarettes. After a while, he had to begin his detour of all the patients who are under his care at the hospital. This takes two to three hours. He oversees their recovery and gives advice as to what they can do to rehabilitate themselves.

His medical career started 25 years ago, almost to the day when Ukraine gained independence on August 24, 1991. But his engagement in medical affairs began eight years earlier when he was a medical assistant in one of Kyiv’s hospital.

When the Revolution of Dignity started 3 years ago, his life dramatically changed. He started to recognize himself a patriot. He wasn’t watching from the sidelines, but, on the contrary, he played a vital role in the course of events. As a doctor he understood that he can help people on the streets. “Everything started from the EuroMaidan. I was a member of a medical team, helping people on Maidan square,” Horbovets explains.

Vladysla Horbovets in Kyiv’s hospital (author’s photo)

When Ukraine celebrated the triumph of the EuroMaidan and the first euphoria of the victory was still in the air, Russia invaded Crimea and started a war on Donbas. In this uneasy environment, he realized that he has to do something more, than he is doing every day in Kyiv..

“I was thinking what I can do in this situation, but I am not a trooper, not a soldier, not a sniper.”

In the summer days of 2014, the Ministry of Defense was looking for doctors who would like to join medical teams in the military hospitals. He did not hesitate and signed an application form. In August 2014, when dramatic events in Ilovaisk and Donetsk airport happened, Horbovets was prescribed to a brigade of extreme medical care.

The Battle of Ilovaisk took place in August 2014. According to the Ukrainian military, army had to retreat because of the advance of Russian army, which crossed the Ukrainian-Russian border and intervened. It is estimated that more than 1,000 soldiers have been killed.

For the next several months, Ukrainian army was trying to defend its stronghold on the Western side of Donetsk, the Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport. During autumn 2014 and winter 2015 it was completely destroyed and captured by the militants. Ukrainians, who defended it became known as “cyborgs” for their strength and courage.

Even though the situation was getting worse and worse, he was waiting. There were no messages from the Ministry or medical authorities. “I called them,” he says. “I said ‘I can be useful.’ They said I have to wait. I did not speak with them anymore.”

Soon afterwords, he saw a story on the news about a group of volunteers, The Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital, which provides medical assistance in Donbas. He decided to apply for the second time.


The Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital

The hospital is one of the nongovernmental progects on involving civil health professionals in provision of medical assistance in the zone of Anti-Terrorist Operation, carried out in certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.

It was created 2 years ago after an urgent need in medical personnel appeared in Donbas. According to its creator Gennadiy Druzenko, its task is to involve civil medics and auxiliary personnel in diagnostics, screening and provision of medical aid to Ukrainian servicemen, law enforcement officers and civilians in areas of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO).

It was named after Mykola Pirogov, a Ukrainian and Russian surgeon, who is considered to be the founder of field surgery.


The First Mission

January 2015. Horbovets receives a call from Druzenko. He is invited to join one of the teams which is about to depart to Donetsk oblast. He agrees.

His first rotation started in February in Bachmut (former Artemivsk), just 20 km from the frontline, the most troubled point on the map of Eastern Ukraine at the time. While Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France agreed to sign the Minsk Accords on Feb. 12, the Russian army and the so-called “separatists” surrounded Ukrainian troops near Debaltsevo, a small town an hour’s drive from Bachmut. The hospital in Artemivsk, where Horbovets had to work next month, was the main military hospital in those days.

“I went to the church. I did not know what to expect!” Horbovets describes his feelings before the departure. He had never been there. He is about to change his life completely.

Until the end, he did not know where exactly he would work. No one, even Druzenko, knew what to expect. The situation could change every moment.

“Tell me, at least, what should I bring with me,” Vladyslav asked the leader of the volunteer hospital Gennadiy Druzenko.

“Everything you can carry with you. We can work and live in dugouts or in tents,” responded the hospital’s chief.

But, there was no surprise for him: it was not a dugout or a tent, it was a hospital. “Same hospital, same operating room, same job,” Horbovets describes. The only difference was the type of injuries: Horbovets was used to working with patients who had ordinary diseases, but in Donbas he faced combat wounds. Most of all, he had to treat the injured limbs and chest, to use prosthetics and to prepare soldiers for the further treatment in Kharkiv or Dnipro.

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There were 40 doctors in the team: traumatologists, surgeons, urologists, therapists and many others. It took two days to reach Bachmut from Kyiv, even though it usually takes 15 hours by train. The hospital had its own equipment (an operating-room and an X-ray machine), lodged in a big “Ural” truck and 12 cars for the personnel.

Twelve cars, “Ural” and their passengers arrived in Bachmut in the night on February, 10. The first he remembers from that night was a huge bombing from cannons some 15–20 km from the city. It was the first sign that he is somewhere near the frontline.

On the morning, the picture was completely different: the streets were full of people, cars, and buses; the shops were open — everything was like a usual city, except for one — the bombing continued.

“The feeling was unusual: I was witnessing a normal city life. Maybe not very normal, because I could see some tanks and other military equipment, but still this was unexpected for me to see a city living quite a calm life just 20–30 km from the frontline,” the doctor describes his first impressions of the life in a city 20 km from tank battles.

His first mission lasted exactly one month — from February 10 to March 10.

Overall, after almost two years volunteering in the East he had five rotations: two in Bachmut (Donetsk region), two in Novoaidar (Luhansk region) and one in Popasna (Luhansk region).

“This was destiny that I was sent to this hospital because there was no vascular surgeon,” Horbovets talks about his first rotation. “There were many specialized doctors, but no one with my specialization of a vascular surgeon, even though it is very important in such situations.”

Horbovets explains that vascular surgeon are needed, because 80% of wounds are the wounds of limbs, head, and neck. Only vascular surgeons know how to treat them without harm to the patients. If the limbs are injured, they do not receive enough blood, which means that a person may get gangrene and lose them. “The task of a vascular surgeon is to use a prosthetic appliance to fix a limb, especially when there is a serious wound from splinters,” Horbovets says.

He had two difficult periods during his volunteering there. The first one was in Bachmut during first rotation, because of the battles near Debaltsevo. He calculated that during that time the hospital received every day from 150 to 170 people. The second one was in Novoaidar, and even though there is no frontline near this small city in Luhansk oblast, the scope of work was huge, because it was only one hospital still working in the neighborhood.


A Nurse

He remembers of the nurses he worked with. Her name is Alina Naragan. She was also a volunteer in the Pyrogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital. She arrived to Donbas on May 28, 2015. At that time, Donbas was at the beginning of a disarmament. There were no more severe gun battles and a relative peace was established. Nevertheless, the war had not disappeared.

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She says she began a nurse in 2002 and has devoted herself to medicine since then. She says medicine was a meaningful choice.

Like Horbovets, who was the only one vascular surgeon in the military hospital, she was the only one operational nurse.

“I began my career as an operational nurse in the “Sector D” (the territory of the so-called ATO zone is divided into several sectors — author). I volunteered in Bachmut because that’s where they brought most of the wounded, even from remote districts,” she explains. She had to do multiple tasks: to work in the evacuation teams, in teams which help to transport soldiers to the helicopters, to evacuate wounded from the battlefield and to work directly as a nurse in an operation room.

The work was hard. She remembers the deprivation of sleep. “If there is some time, you have to go to sleep,” Naragan recommends.

  • “Alina, where are you going? If…” a doctor asked her once.
  • “I’m tired,” Alina interrupted.
  • She had already gone to bed, when a doctor, Heorgi Heorgijovych, called: “Alina, I know you have only returned from an operation room, but you have to wake up immediately.”

In Bachmut, she worked together with Horbovets and describes him as a wise and talented doctor. He, in return, says that he wouldn’t be able to do his job without her assistance. He says there was a team that worked in order to help others.

In 2016, she was relocated to Novooleksandrivka in Luhansk region. This time she worked in a 44th artillery brigade. “There weren’t proper conditions. I managed to make a small medical center inside an old, abandoned building. We organized some light there. At least, it was something,” she describes the situation.

She says that her decision to go to the East was completely voluntary.

“I wanted to make my contribution, just to help. I could not sit here and see everything that was happening when I could help.”

Since August she is again in Kyiv. She says she wants to go back, but her husband has another opinion. She is also afraid for her seven-years-old son.

“Of course, I want to go back. I got used to it. On the contrary, I can’t get used to this life. Adaptation here takes much longer time then there. When I’m here, I have to look after my son all the time because I am afraid for him. It is really the pity that not everyone understands this situation. It is good that we have such soldiers, who hold the frontline there; we must be grateful and to make our own contribution. But not everyone understands. This really infuriates me,” Alina says. Even though she is really happy person, she began to show her irritation. She thinks much more could be done, but there is no agreement in the society about what else can be done. Nevertheless, she wants to go back and to continue her job.

Author’s collage (photos from: https://www.facebook.com/gorbovezz?fref=ts)

“When someone asks me why I volunteer there, I say that I have to continue what we started during the Euromaidan. From the medical point of view, if I know how to treat and feel that I can do something important, what can be better in life!?” Horbovets explains. He is also not happy with the situation and with the reaction from the Kyiv’s authorities.

For him, the main role of doctors on the East is to “sew Ukraine”. They are those who have to show that Ukraine is better than a “Russian world”.

“From the medical point we can provide such operations they have not had before. We, Ukrainians, have to do everything on the territory of Ukraine to cure our country. This is about the future of Ukraine. Our knowledge and patriotism is a driving force that promotes us to be involved,” Horbovets concluded.

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