CUF In The News

Mission possible: Edmonton ICU doctor helping aid in life-changing surgeries to Ukraine war victims

Dr. Oleksa Rewa, an ICU physician at the University of Alberta hospital poses with a Ukraine war victim that he assisted in a post-surgery recovery, while on in a mission with the Canada-Ukraine Foundation that helps warm victims receive life-changing plastic surgeries. PHOTO BY SUPPLIED

As an intensive care unit doctor at the University of Alberta Hospital, Dr. Oleksa Rewa has seen his fair share of people suffering horrific injuries. It comes with the territory.

But in March 2022, he got an opportunity to go to Czeladz, Poland on a mission with the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, and the trauma he witnessed will no doubt stay with him not just for the rest of his career, but his life.

“These were men aged anywhere from 18 to their 40s, which is still very young, having horrible disfiguring injuries. They’re basically the worst type of injuries you can survive from,” said Rewa.

“People were coming in much sicker than we thought and with wounds we didn’t even know existed.“

Rewa is part of the Canada Ukraine Surgical Aid Program (CUSAP), which is a program under the CUF, where a team of doctors and nurses across Canada, travel to Poland for multiple weeks and perform extensive and complex surgeries on Ukrainian military and civilians who have been devastatingly injured from the Russia-Ukraine war.

Their first mission was in 2014, and since the war between Ukraine and Russia broke in 2022 they’ve run ongoing medical aid programs every two months. It is anticipated that there are already approximately 20,000 amputees as a result of war injuries.

The war victims endured life-saving surgeries leaving them with life-altering injuries, and the medical team perform cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries.

Rewa provides post-operative care for these patients

“It would be 16- to 18-hour days. You didn’t have time to really think of what was happening around you. You did what had to be done,” said Rewa.

“Every day was a surprise, and you had to be very agile and be able to pivot and deal with what was happening. There were a few times where it felt like we weren’t going to get things done, but with the efforts of our team, we got through it.”

Rewa performed surgeries daily on patients, sometimes multiple surgeries on a patient. Professionally, Rewa was tested to the highest degree, performing some surgeries he’s never had to encounter.

As a surgeon, surely there are times when performing surgery can sometimes become routine, but this mission provided so much more for Rewa.

“I remember one soldier particularly. I believe a mine had blown up in his face. His lower jaw was completely gone. He had a life-saving procedure performed in Ukraine, and then a titanium reconstruction of his jaw,” said Rewa.

“Because it was a dirty wound, it got infected and ate away at the bone and tissue grafts that were there.”

He remembers meeting him for the first time before surgery.

“It’s something you can’t prepare yourself for,” said Rewa.

“He was in the room with his sister, and he took off his mask and basically what you see is where we have chins, he has a metal plate, the type you’d see at the bottom of a helmet. After that it’s open and you see the base of his tongue.

“To keep the saliva from going down his shirt, because he had nothing to close his mouth, he would shove rags in there to close up the space.”

Since then, Rewa says the patient has had to have at least two more surgeries to get his jaw reconstructed, bone and skin put back in and his lips rebuilt.

“Now he can eat soup. He took a video of himself eating soup and sent it to our group, because that was something he never thought he’d be able to do again,” said Rewa.

Another patient that sticks with Dr. Rewa was an elderly civilian who was injured in a rocket strike. The man came to them with what was originally thought of as a scalp wound, but it became so much more.

“What we found when we took off the various bandages was a skull infection, with a very invasive and drug-resistant bacteria, and then he told us he couldn’t move his right arm,” said Rewa.

“We took off his shirt and found that his right scapula (shoulder blade) was completely exposed and he had broken bones in his right arm that were not known to us.“

As someone of Ukrainian heritage, this experience has really hit home for Dr. Rewa. He admits that he’s not someone who typically gets too emotional in his work, but this experience brought it out in him.

“What I found, on my flight back, I ended up having a five-hour layover in Frankfurt, and that’s when things really hit me. I got really emotional. It brought something out in me,” said Rewa.

“We helped a lot of people. It was rewarding for me, and it helped overcome the burnout I was experiencing from the COVID pandemic. As an intensive care doctor, throughout the pandemic.

“Professionally I was starting to burn out and to have something different like this to provide work that was rewarding and people appreciated, helped me get through that burnout I was experiencing, and ultimately it’s helped me care for patients here in Edmonton again.”

Rewa has been on two missions with CUF so far and is scheduled to go on his third mission in April. This is something that isn’t just humanitarian work for Rewa, it’s personal. It’s become a huge passion for him.

“It really has become part of who I am. The way I look at it, it’s four or five weeks out of the year. That’s about 10 per cent of my time, and that’s a drop in the bucket in terms of time commitment for how much value it provides these people and the entire Ukraine war effort,” said Rewa.

“This is something I’ll be doing for the foreseeable future, and I don’t see it slowing down for the next seven to 10 years. Hopefully, when things get more settled and stable, we can move these missions back to the Ukraine.”

Edmonton Journal