Ukrainian Physicians 'Ready to Die for Their Freedom'

Adam Marcus

February 28, 2022

Nasogastric tubes. Foley catheter kits. Hydrogel anti-burn bandages and transfusion bags. Heparin, atropine, tramadol.

Dr Leo J. Wolansky

These items are just a few of some two dozen critical medical supplies that physicians in Ukraine desperately need, according to Leo Wolansky, MD, a Ukrainian-American radiologist and president of the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America (UMANA).

Wolansky founded a teaching program with an organization called Friends of Radiology in Ukraine in 1996 and has been running courses for specialists there ever since. He last visited the country in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, but has remained in contact with his medical colleagues by phone and email. Over the weekend, UMANA held a fundraiser for Ukraine, raising more than $17,000.

Medscape Medical News spoke with Wolansky about the situation for his fellow physicians in the war-torn country.

Medscape: Where is your family from and do you have relatives in the country now?

Wolansky: My family is from two different parts of Ukraine. My mother was from central Ukraine. Her father, Ivan Sharyj, was part of the students' militia that fought at the famous battle of Kruty in 1918. Four hundred Ukrainian militia fought against 5000 professional Russian soldiers and were massacred. He later wrote the first eye-witness account. Afterwards, he had the opportunity to flee Ukraine but chose to stay under a pseudonym. Eventually, during Stalin's purges [1929–1933], the regime found him, arrested him, tortured him, and executed him. My mother was seven when she saw her father arrested, never to return home. My father was from Western Ukraine, which did not have a long history of Russian occupation. His mother's family was very patriotic; her first cousin, Stepan Vytvytskyi, eventually became the president of Ukraine in exile from 1955 to 1964.

I have second and more distant cousins in Kyiv. My wife has first cousins in Western Ukraine. They and my doctor colleagues are suffering greatly but are ready to die for their freedom.

Medscape: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put tremendous stress on the Ukrainian people, including the country's medical professionals. How do doctors in these kinds of situations handle casualties they can't prevent? How do they work around that sense that everything is out of their control?

Wolansky: A lot of infrastructural things are being disrupted; there are limitations that you wouldn't normally encounter. Ukraine has been developing a lot of sophisticated medical technology, but it still has room to grow. Under these circumstances, when there are bombs going off and transportation is being disrupted, it creates very new and significant obstacles to surmount. It still has not risen to massive casualties, and we can just pray that it does not, but in times of war, a very different kind of medicine is practiced.

But remember, Ukraine has been at war since 2014, when Russia took Crimea and invaded the Eastern provinces. The doctors there are not unfamiliar with war injuries. At our conferences in Ukraine, I have seen radiological presentations of injuries sustained in war — gunshots, fractures, and amputations — as well as other kinds of traumatic injuries. You're going for a kind of more emergent treatment to transfuse, to maintain peoples' blood pressure, put bandages on, sterilize and sanitize wounds to prevent infections. I imagine there will be many field hospitals set up between now and the next few weeks to deal with the acute injuries.

Medscape: Ukraine has struggled with high rates of HIV and multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, as well as a lack of resources for treating patients with mental illness. Meanwhile, the country has had more that 5 million cases of COVID-19 and an estimated 112,000 deaths from the disease. Are you concerned about an exacerbation of infection rates, including of COVID, particularly among refugees and those who become homeless?

Wolansky: Because COVID ran pretty rampant in Ukraine, I think that ― at a high cost ― there is a level of natural immunity in the population. And the weather is going to be getting warmer soon, and respiratory viruses are cyclic in nature, so I don't know if that's going to be a big complicating factor. However, people get sick all the time, and the prognosis for them is going to be much worse than it otherwise might be. If you have a heart attack, your chances were way better when the roads were clear and people weren't shooting at you.

Right now, it's very regional where the infrastructure is being destroyed. The West, where I used to go, is in much better shape than the East because it has not been the focus of Russian attacks. But Kyiv could turn into a very big humanitarian crisis very quickly if there's no electricity, no water. All sorts of medical conditions could be greatly exacerbated, and some new health crises could arise from water contamination, bombs causing buildings to collapse, and other problems. Whatever the illness is, it's going to be harder to take care of it.

Medscape: Doctors Without Borders announced that it was suspending its operations in Ukraine because of the invasion ― missions that included HIV care in Severodonetsk, tuberculosis care in Zhytomyr, and improving health care access in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, according to the aid group. What do doctors in Ukraine need most acutely now, other than peace?

Wolansky: Obviously, money is valuable, and military protection, which would prevent additional damage to their infrastructure. One thing that bears mentioning, there's been a fair amount of coverage of this, but I've witnessed it first-hand: The Ukrainian people are fiercely patriotic, and there's really no way their spirit can be conquered. The USSR invaded Afghanistan, and after years of thinking they were in command, they left because they could no longer take the guerilla warfare and the constant sniper attacks. Ukraine's population is many times larger than Afghanistan's; there's no way they can be subdued. And remember, the Ukrainian people have been free for 30 years ― generations of young people have known no other way of life. They are not going to give that up.

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