“The most horrible thing is wounded children.” Stories of medical workers who save people under occupation and on the frontlines
Author: Maria Semenchenko
Editor: Aliona Vyshnytska
Illustrator: Polya Zapolska
Translator: Roksolana Mashkova
With the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, Ukrainian medical workers and hospitals have faced new challenges: working under occupation, on the frontlines, in cities near the front and towns in the rear which host high numbers of forcibly displaced people.
In the four months of the war in Ukraine, Russian missiles have damaged 917 health care facilities, 122 of which have been destroyed completely and cannot be rebuilt. The deaths of 14 and injuries of 48 medical workers have been officially confirmed. These are the data provided by the Minister of Health Care Viktor Liashko.
Meanwhile, over 400 health care facilities have remained in the occupied territories. The medical workers who have stayed there continue helping patients—under pressure and constant threats to their lives, freedom and health. For instance, in Kharkiv Region, the occupiers force medical workers to recognize the occupation government and refuse the salaries they receive from the Ukrainian budget, and in the South of Ukraine, Ukrainian doctors are threatened with mobilization to the Russian army.
Here are the stories of four medical workers who risk their lives to save people on the frontlines or who have saved people under occupation.
“I realized that I was the one who had to deliver the baby, in an apartment without power, water, or gas supply”
The story of Iryna Yazova, a GP who saved people in occupied Bucha
In early March, a Russian sniper shot Volodymyr while he was running across an empty street near his house in occupied Bucha. The bullets went through both his legs, tore the soft tissue and damaged a bone. The man fell in the middle of the street, unable to move. He lay there on the cold asphalt for about five hours until his neighbors dragged him into the stairwell of the nearest building at dusk. Volodymyr got lucky: GP Iryna Yazova, who remained in the occupied city, lived in that exact building.
“My husband kept telling me every day, ‘We’re leaving Bucha, pack your things.’ But I replied to him every day, ‘Now is not the time, I can’t leave yet,’” recalls Iryna Yazova. “I didn’t know why, but I felt that I just had to be there. And then everything got in motion: a wounded baby, Volodia in my stairwell, Anichka’s labor in an apartment without water or power, all my grannies with hypertension crises, renal colic and panic attacks. I think I was in the right place, where I should have been.”
The wounded Volodymyr was laid down on the ground floor and covered with blankets. Iryna got to work right away: she treated and dressed the wounds, gave him shots of antibiotics and painkillers.
“I don’t know if I’d be able to provide all the necessary help if Volodia was elsewhere and not in my building: yards, streets—everything was under Russian crossfire. But this way, I was constantly at his side,” says the doctor. “On the third day, Volodia asked, ‘Ira, dear, if I have a smoke here, will people be mad at me?’ I laughed, ‘Volodia, I’m gonna bring you cigarettes myself. If you want to smoke, it means you’re going to live.’”
Iryna Yazova, 42, has lived in Bucha for the past 12 years with her husband and three kids. She worked as the head of admissions and the COVID-19 ward at the Irpin City Hospital. On February 24, when she heard the whizz of missiles over her house for the first time, she looked around her apartment, and then arranged some blankets and pillows for her kids in the corner where there were no windows or doors. She herself went to work at the hospital, which was about to be repurposed for military needs. She knew that there would be wounded people, and therefore a lot of work for the doctors. Although that day, the hospital management sent Iryna home, saying that she had to take care of her own children first, especially given that there wasn’t any work for her yet. In just a few days, Russian tanks entered Bucha and cut off any possibility of getting to the hospital.
“We saw the Russian tanks, we saw people running around with rifles, but we didn’t understand if it was our guys or the occupiers. The whizz of missiles, the hum of helicopters—it was all close, but not right here, our building seemed to be a bit aside,” recalls Iryna. The first time she realized the horror which Bucha residents had found themselves in was when she was called to a wounded woman with a baby. The family tried to leave the occupied city, but the Russians turned the car around at one of the checkpoints, and then opened fire at it. The people hid in one of the buildings on Tarasivska Street, the same street where Iryna’s family lived.
“The 18-months-old girl had a gunshot wound in her thigh. The wound was rather large and deep, but fortunately the bone wasn’t hit. The baby was suffering from pain. I treated her wound, dressed it with an antiseptic bandage and gave her some painkillers, tried to calm her down,” says the doctor.
“That was when, and these were the first days of the war, I realized clearly that there was nothing human in Russians. What can lead you to shoot a baby?”
On the first days of the occupation, Iryna’s family would leave home to quickly walk the dog and get some food from the destroyed store. When the Russians wounded Volodymur in their street, Iryna forbade her children from leaving the house at all. She herself, however, paid daily visits to her neighbors who needed help. “I dealt with the minor stuff,” smiles Iryna. “Nausea, headaches and dizziness, panic attacks, blood pressure and so on. I picked the right meds, gave them schedules so that the people could take care of themselves even without me.”
Whenever she left home, even briefly, she always took her work bag with her. It contained a laptop, medications, syringes, a tonometer. “My most valued things,” she laughs.
Bucha began to experience blackouts, and then the power was cut off completely. Heating and gas supply followed. There was no internet either, cell connection was very weak: sometimes the most you could do is send a text. Iryna’s building had a generator which they turned on for a few hours to charge their phones. “I wasn’t afraid. I had a feeling that I was in control of my life: I knew where to get food and water, how to charge our phones, how to provide first aid. This feeling of control kept me in shape,” says Iryna.
On March 8, Iryna was woken up by a neighbor at 4 a.m. Their shared friend, 20-year-old Anna, was in labor. She tried to leave Bucha back on the first days, but her attempt to evacuate failed. Iryna was the only doctor who could help.
“Ania was giving birth in a ground floor apartment. It no longer had heating, light or water. There was some bottled water which Ania’s husband and brother wanted to heat up on the gas stove, but gas was cut off in the building right that night. But we had a positive mindset and even created a romantic atmosphere,” laughs Iryna. “Our neighbor, Natalia, brought her beautiful designer candles from home, and we lit them up.”
Iryna recalls how she didn’t hear the explosions and gunshots outside the window because she completely disengaged from everything around her, focusing solely on the delivery.
“There were explosions every night. I don’t think that night was anything special, I just didn’t hear anything, I was in the moment. My task was to help that baby get born. We had one mobile lamp, we charged it specifically for the postpartum period, to check for the level of blood loss. The labor itself was by candlelight,” recalls Iryna Yazova. None of us had any experience in delivering babies, but it felt like the three of us had been working together our entire lives. Vika was doing her own job, Natasha was doing her own, and I was doing my own. Ania was fully aware of where she was and under what circumstances. She was mentally fully ready for the labor.”
On March 8, at 7 a.m., Alisa was born: 3,600 grams, 49 centimeters. “The first emotion was, yay, we’ve delivered! But the baby wasn’t breathing for a few seconds, and those were probably the most scary seconds in my life. Then the baby breathed in, screamed,” says the doctor. “We called the baby’s dad to cut the umbilical cord. He was very anxious, crying, praying, because he was aware of all the risks. If something went wrong, I don’t know what we’d all do. But everything went well. We even found some ice for Ania, well, not exactly ice, frozen vegetables. The freezer had been turned off for a week because there was no power, but there were still a few cold packs at the bottom.”
The next day, Iryna Yazova and her family left Bucha. “Volodia was stable, Ania gave birth and was getting ready for evacuation, all the grannies already had a treatment course picked for them, and I finally agreed to leave,” says Iryna. “My husband, our three children and I, and even a neighbor’s kid, dog and cat packed into a car and set off. I didn’t even have the time to change after the delivery, I was still wearing a sweater stained with Ania’s blood the whole way. We drove in a convoy of ten cars. The road went through Yablunska Street, the street of death, as we all called it. And that’s when I saw all the horrors up close: Russian tanks, those unhinged Russians, I saw the bodies of murdered people. And I felt fear for the first time.”
The way out of the city took ten hours, although it was no more than 30 minutes in peacetime. Iryna’s family went to Kyiv first, and then to Western Ukraine, and from there to Poland.
“It really hurts to leave your home. I was crying the whole way. I know I will come back home someday, but not now. I just try to live on. I want and can’t find an answer to the question, Why do Russians do what they did in Bucha and other cities? Are they even people?”
“Ten anesthesiologists quit their jobs at our hospital on the same day and left the city”
The story of surgeon Vitaliy Hrudetsky about his life and work in occupied Kherson
“I met the first day of the full-scale war at work—I had a shift. Within an hour or two, we were already admitting the wounded, and my shift extended to three days,” recalls surgeon Vitaliy Hrudetsky, who spent two months in occupied Kherson.
He says that on the first days of the war, about 30 wounded people were delivered to their hospital, and another 80 to the emergency hospital. “They had explosion wounds, multiple trauma, gunshot wounds,” lists the doctor.
Vitaliy remembers his first casualty very well. It was a young guy brought to the hospital at 10 a.m. “A civilian. An explosive injury of the pelvis and lower limb, widespread wounding. He survived. We brought him back. His prognosis is good,” briefly describes Vitaliy Hrudetsky.
As long as the fighting was in the suburbs, recalls Vitaliy, nobody went down to shelters. “But when fighter jets started flying above us, then some people would go to shelters, but not everyone and not every time, because the ward was full of patients, and the doctors had to be at the side of those who weren’t able to go downstairs,” explains the doctor. He says that the team was united and they had their minds set to Ukraine’s victory, everybody supported one another.
Vitaliy recalls that there weren’t many Russian troops in the city during the first weeks of the occupation. But more and more came with every passing week. And when he was leaving Kherson with his family in April, the city was teeming with them.
“I lived near the hospital, and thanks to this I barely ever crossed paths with Russians in the streets. I always had my ID with me in case someone stops me,” says Vitaliy. “In general, people moved around the city between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., and then Kherson would die out. Only the occupiers’ patrols were outside. At 4 or 5 p.m., the city would be completely deserted. You always needed to be very careful there. With everything. The Russians drove military vehicles around the city, breaking traffic laws. There were cases of them running over civilian cars, people died. Or they could hit someone on a pedestrian crossing. And when they started dispersing pro-Ukrainian rallies by force, people were kidnapped and tortured, intimidated. People developed fear.”
His patients included, for example, a well-known Kherson activist. On the first day of the full-scale war, he drove with his friends to deliver some fuel to the Ukrainian soldiers who were defending the Antonivsky Bridge. “Their car was shot by a Russian tank. He was the only one to survive. He was delivered to us in the evening of February 24. I pulled a 5 cm by 5 cm missile fragment out of him. His main vein and lower limbs were damaged. We kept this patient for a month and a half, we managed to pull him through. He was soon able to leave Kherson,” says the doctor.
“When the city was already occupied, maybe some of us felt some kind of despair or disappointment, but because the team was generally pro-Ukrainian, we managed to keep this faith in the better outcome,” says Vitaliy Hrudetsky. “During the occupation, a few weeks after the beginning of the fighting, we started receiving fewer wounded people, we finished the treatment of those in serious condition whom we had received on the first days of the war. There were also a few cases when the Russians delivered wounded men who had been mobilized in the territory of the ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ (terrorist quasi-state formations established by the Russian Federation in the territory of some districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Regions of Ukraine which Russia occupied. Ed.). We tried to ask them questions, but they did not want to make contact.”
This is how Vitaliy describes life in occupied Kherson: you live in a modern city, everything is alright, and then—snap!—and you’re back in the 1990s.
“Goods sold from car trunks and sidewalks, shortages of food, water, hygiene items. Information vacuum. Food prices are very high because all the logistic connections with Ukraine have been cut off. Whatever has remained is very expensive and there’s little of it. You spend your weekends trying to find something somewhere and buy it,” says Hrudetsky.
His family decided to leave Kherson when the city started to actively discuss a possible “referendum” followed by possible forced mobilization to the Russian army. “On Easter, April 24, we left the city at 6 a.m. in a column of five cars. It took us 13 hours to pass all the Russian checkpoints and get to the territory controlled by Ukraine. We passed Bila Krynytsia, where the elevator was still burning and grain warehouses were already almost completely burned, there were fresh craters from artillery missiles and torn wires everywhere.”
They were lucky: a few days earlier, the Russians fired at a similar civilian convoy trying to leave the city. People were killed and wounded.
Vitaliy left occupied Kherson for Chernivtsi. Now he works there at the Central City Hospital and keeps in touch with his colleagues and friends in Kherson. He says that the situation in the city is difficult.
“The occupiers are trying to pressure doctors and hospital administrations into collaboration with them. Ten anesthesiologists quit their jobs at our hospital on the same day and left Kherson. All of my friends whom I’ve talked to support Ukraine and none of them are inclined to collaborate with the occupiers, but they may find themselves in circumstances when they will have to. Not everyone can abandon everything and leave,” explains the doctor.
Vitaliy would like to return to Kherson someday. “But it will only be possible under the condition that it is completely safe in Kherson. Now it’s hard to tell when this will happen,” he concludes.
“Treating our military is a great honor for me”
The story of pediatric anesthesiologist Roman Sobko from Lviv who saves people on the frontlines
“Once we had a girl brought to us after shelling, she had injuries of her limbs and internal organs, we had to remove her spleen and kidney. The child was in critical condition, she lost a lot of blood. Her chances of survival were minimal. But we managed to reanimate her. And when she came to, it was such joy! Later we transported her to the regional hospital in Dnipro,” says anesthesiologist Roman Sobko, mobilized to the 66th Military Mobile Hospital which is now working on the front. Roman and his colleagues save both military and civilian people here. But when asked about the patients he remembers best, he mostly talks about children.
“There was also a 10-year-old girl who lost her entire family during shelling in Vuhledar. She had a spine and head injury, her finger was amputated. We put her on a ventilator and moved her to the Dnipro Regional Hospital. Now she’s in rehabilitation in Lviv,” says Roman. “There were also two boys with limb injuries. One of them had his popliteal artery damaged, and if we didn’t treat him on time, he would have lost his leg. We operated on him here. Not so long ago, we received a three-year-old girl from a frontline town who had seizures, and they were impossible to eliminate except by putting her in drug-induced sleep, on a ventilator, and transporting her to the hospital in Dnipro. People in frontline and nearby towns have no way of obtaining proper medical treatment or consultation nowadays, so they come to us, military medics.”
Photo: Roman Sobko
Roman Sobko has been saving children’s lives for over 20 years. In peacetime, he’s the head of the intensive care ward at the West Ukrainian Children’s Specialized Medical Center in Lviv. He explains that he knows how to talk to a child who needs help and how to calm them down.
In 2014, Roman and his brother Andriy volunteered to serve as military medics in the Donetsk Region. When the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine started in February 2022, they were mobilized again, and they ended up in the same region.
“The hardest thing is seeing wounded children. Young wounded soldiers, almost kids. War makes you a bit sentimental: you’re even more worried about all these kids, you’re concerned about their fate. And anger? I’ve always had anger for the enemies, ever since I started studying Ukrainian history,” says the doctor.
He explains that they have more work now compared to 2014–2015, but less fear. “Of course, it all depends on whether there’s an offensive by one side or the other. During Mariupol and Volnovakha we had so much work, we slept just a few hours a day, we worked 24/7. Now it’s a bit easier, although there is active fighting near Vuhledar, so we have enough work. And the patients are in much more serious conditions than before,” says Roman. “Even when you have a free minute, you can’t go for a walk or something, because you must always be on call, near the anti-shock room or the operating room. To be able to provide treatment quickly at any moment. Even a few minutes can be decisive.”
He says that in 2014–2015, he was scared of, for instance, shelling. But now it’s so frequent that he’s no longer startled, he’s used to it.
“What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of making a mistake in my work. We’re very responsible and scrupulous, but I do have this fear. And it’s hard to see when medics from other teams are brought here wounded. We talked just yesterday, but today they’re on the operating table in front of me. That’s hard,” says Roman. But he adds right away that he tries to always look for something good in the reality he lives in, otherwise he’d burn out.
“In early June we delivered a baby. It was the first experience of delivery for all the doctors who are here now. We were successful,” Roman’s voice grows softer. “Little Darynka was born. Both the mother and the baby are alright.”
Roman Sobko says that his strength comes from his belief in Ukraine’s victory over Russia. “Being here and helping our military is a great honor for me,” he concludes.
“Russia wants to destroy everything Ukrainian that is in Ukraine”
The story of Said Ismahilov, who was the mufti of the Clerical Board of Ukraine’s Muslims for 13 years, but now serves as a driver-shooter in the ASAP Hottabych medical unit
Early June. The vehicle of the medical unit of ASAP Hottabych is rushing through the steppe roads of the Donetsk Region, transporting a wounded Ukrainian soldier. The driver is Said Ismahilov, who was the mufti of the Clerical Board of Ukraine’s Muslims until January 2022, but now serves as a driver-shooter for a medical crew. The paramedic in the back is providing first aid to the soldier. Suddenly the vehicle’s back tire bursts to pieces. The van leans to the side. The driver slows down but doesn’t stop, and they drive another ten kilometers or so on the rim of the wheel. The wounded warrior is delivered to the hospital and handed over to the surgeons.
“It was a very stressful day,” recalls Said Ismahilov. “We were in the fields, within reach of enemy fire, there’s a bedridden wounded soldier and paramedic in your van, anything can happen. What if the van drifted or even turned over? It was a difficult situation, but we managed.”
Said Ismahilov knew there would be a full-scale war and prepared for it. Back in December 2021, he signed up for the Territorial Defense of the Armed Forces in Bucha, where he’s lived for the past eight years. He moved there with his family in 2014 from Donetsk, which was occupied by Russians. “I decided right away that Russians will not make me leave my home for the second time, so I prepared,” says Said. “In our Territorial Defense unit, we had experienced commanders who’ve been through the war. They warned us that we had to be ready to fight back after February 20. They had no doubt that Russia would invade.” In January, Said Ismahilov’s term as the mufti expired, and he decided not to run in the next election.
“What I’m doing now is a continuation of my service,” Said says.
On the first day of the big war, Said moved his family to a safe place and returned to Kyiv, to the Territorial Defense. When the battles in the Kyiv Region began in March, the medics of the ASAP Hottabych unit asked for his help with evacuating the wounded. “Romanivka was under fire, there was the battle for Irpin, Bucha was still occupied. Wounded civilians were brought to the blown-up bridge in Romanivka, and people trying to escape hell also came there. People were delivered to us from that side, and we received them on this side and transported them to Kyiv,” recalls Said Ismahilov. “We took out children, women, elderly people who could no longer walk on their own. On the first day, I remember, we drove two families with children out of Irpin, they had reached the destroyed bridge on foot under Russian fire. I remember one day very well. The location where our vehicles were based came under severe mortar fire which lasted for about an hour. The mines fell within 30 or 40 meters from us. We were just lying on the cold, wet asphalt and waiting.”
Already in April the Kyiv Region was de-occupied by Ukrainian troops. When that happened, Said and the medics headed for the Donetsk Region. Since then, they’ve been helping both civilian and military people.
“Recently we were driving out two grannies and two boys who came under fire in Lysychansk. They were standing in line for water, and the line was shelled by the Russians. They barely said anything on the way, and I didn’t really ask many questions,” recalls Said.
Said Ismahilov says that he is not afraid of anything now. “Of course, I wouldn’t want to be surrounded, not to mention captured. I don’t even accept the possibility of that. But as for shelling or bombing, I’m not afraid of it,” he says. “I’ve been a Muslim priest for 20 years: as an imam for 7 years and as a mufti for 13 years. I’ve had to bury young children, I’ve had to bury my close relatives. At some point you realize that you have to disengage from taking the situation, person or event personally and just do your job professionally. Otherwise you’ll just burn out. That’s how I work now, too: I know that I just have to do my job properly, quickly and professionally.”
Photo: Said Ismahilov
Said Ismahilov calls this Russian-Ukrainian war a civilization war. He says that the only way out for Ukrainians is to completely defeat Russia. He explains: “This war is ontological in nature. This isn’t just a war for resources, for territory, for influence over people anymore. Russia wants to destroy Ukraine completely, destroy everything Ukrainian that is in Ukraine. And there is no other way for us but to destroy Russia. If we just fight back and liberate the temporarily occupied territories, Russia will gather a massive horde again in a few years and attack. It will never leave us alone.”
On the first day of the liberation of Bucha, Said came home. He saw his apartment half-destroyed. A blast wave broke the windows. Occupiers had also been there: they robbed the apartment, took all the valuables, broke the furniture, made a mess. “But I saw that our plants had survived a month without water, I took them from there to our volunteer base so they could bloom again,” says Said. “I will repair and clean everything, no problem, and I’ll return home. It’s my home, and whatever the Russians do, it will still be my home.”
The project is produced with the support of Lviv Media Forum and EU-funded programme House of Europe.