Anastasiya Ringis is a Ukrainian journalist temporarily based in Ottawa, who also works for the Canada-Ukraine Foundation which funds the Canada Ukraine Surgical Aid Program (CUSAP). Emily Mullin is a journalist who volunteers with CUSAP.
Mykhayilo Potyshnyak, badly injured when a missile hit his house in Ukraine, is slowly on the mend after many surgeries, thanks to a team of Canadian doctors.
After the missile attack this summer, he was pulled unconscious from the rubble by his son and would soon learn that the air strike on Kherson had killed both his wife and second son. Close to death, Mr. Potyshnyak had sustained burns to 85 per cent to 90 per cent of his scalp, leaving much of his skull exposed. Without treatment, Ukrainian doctors feared that an infection could spread to his brain.
After multiple interventions, he was brought to Poland, where he underwent an 11- hour-long surgery, during which a piece of muscle from his back was used to cover his skull.
The team of Canadian surgeons who treated Mr. Potyshnyak was led by Dr. Oleh Antonyshyn, a craniofacial surgeon from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and head of the Canada Ukraine Surgical Aid Program (CUSAP).
“Those suffering have absolutely no one to turn to. Ukraine is at absolute capacity,” Dr. Antonyshyn said.
He explained that CUSAP’s patients are those whom the overstressed Ukrainian medical system simply can’t handle and would otherwise be denied care because of the complexity of their injuries. The Canadian surgical program, on the other hand, has the resources and expertise to take on patients with such serious complications, he said.
Months of preparation go into each mission to ensure the deployments are properly staffed and equipped, with the team supplying its own nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologists and internists from hospitals across Canada and the U.S.
The cost of the Russian invasion increases for Ukraine every day; for example, casualties from the missile attack on a residential house in Dnipro on just one day in January included 44 dead and 80 wounded. Twenty-five-hundred wounded Ukrainians have been transported to different hospitals in Europe and elsewhere since the beginning of the war, according to Ukraine’s ministry of health data.
As Russian attacks continue, the medical needs in Ukraine have outstripped what local doctors can provide. Many hospitals are under constant threat of new missile attacks or blackouts.
Dr. Antonyshyn has provided medical care in Ukraine since the Maidan Revolution in 2014. Since the Russian invasion, the surgical initiative has had to relocate its operations to a hospital in Czeladz, a small town in southern Poland.
In the past four months, the Canadian group has travelled to Poland twice, treating 48 patients in total. The cost of each mission is nearly $250,000, which is funded by donations to the Canada-Ukraine Foundation (CUF). Each surgery can last anywhere
In the past four months, the Canadian group has travelled to Poland twice, treating 48 patients in total. The cost of each mission is nearly $250,000, which is funded by donations to the Canada-Ukraine Foundation (CUF). Each surgery can last anywhere from six to 15 hours, and current cases are much more complicated compared with the injuries of 2014 or 2015.
“Several years ago, most of our patients were veterans; now, the increasing number of patients are civilians. The types of wounds we are seeing reflect the scale of war and are much more severe,” Dr. Antonyshyn said.
One civilian patient named Olena has undergone 12 procedures after a rocket attack crushed both of her legs while she was at home watching TV in her house in Donbas. Another patient, who was mobilized during the war, has been readapting to civilian life after a sniper shot to his right arm resulted in him being discharged from the military.
Some patients’ injuries are so extensive that they’ll require additional procedures during the next missions. Canadians also collaborate with the National Military Medical Clinical Center “Main Military Clinical Hospital” in Kyiv. The total costs of medical equipment, delivered by the mission from Canada to Ukraine since 2014, is more than $2-million – all funded by CUF. This year, $2-million was spent to set up the missions at the Polish hospital for the next 12 months.
“Over the years, the team of plastic surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists volunteered their time and skills to help 286 patients. It would cost over $60-million to do these types of surgeries in Canada,” chair of CUF Victor Hetmanczuk said.
The program manager of the mission, Yulia Malaniy, says that every patient is prepared psychologically before procedures. They describe the treatment plan in detail, show photos of others with similar diagnoses “before” and “after” their operations.
“The result of the operation depends a lot on the emotional state of the patient. Psychological readiness impacts how quickly the new bones or skin will heal,” Ms. Malaniy said.
The Canadian team hopes to move their surgical missions back to Ukraine as soon as it is safe. They are also looking to expand operations to other required specialties, such as neurosurgery and pediatric care.
Eleven Ukrainian doctors joined the team in November, 2022, to learn from Canadian surgeons. Dr. Antonyshyn explains that surgery is an important aspect of the humanitarian initiative, but an overarching goal is to build capacity in Ukraine, so that doctors can perform advanced procedures locally going forward. And that process is already under way. “I’m proud of such Ukrainian doctors like Ihor Fedirko, who is completely independent in reconstructing the largest defects. We delivered the equipment to him, and he started to perform surgeries in the Kyiv military hospital,” Dr. Antonyshyn said. Over the years, many Ukrainian surgeons became not just his students, but also his friends, he said.
Several Canadian doctors plan to travel to Poland for the next mission. Many are going because of their Ukrainian heritage, but all feel a moral responsibility to help out in the face of atrocities, Dr. Antonyshyn said.
“This is a major crisis, one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century,” Dr. Antonyshyn said. “When an urgent need developed in Ukraine, I knew I had Canadians I could rely on.”