'I got blown into the air, my leg had gone': Growing number of Ukrainians unable to get prosthetics

ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson reports from a hospital in Cherkasy, north-east Ukraine, where numerous civilians have lost their limbs and are struggling to get rehabilitation

Far away from the frontline, where the bombs no longer fall and the shooting stops, you can see the cruelty and raw testimony of the war in Ukraine. It’s in the hospital corridors, haunted by the horrors inflicted on the innocent.

On the orthopaedic ward at Cherkasy’s Third City Hospital - a three-hour drive to the south east of Kyiv - we met Maksym Zabihailo. He is 27, and a former dental technician. He is also a new amputee, he told me as he lay in his bed - a bed he hasn't moved from in five weeks.

“I will never be the same person again. I am sadder, less active and I look at the world with different eyes now.”

Maksym was hit by missiles in Donetsk on April 28. He’d only left his house to go and get food and water for his parents. In an instant, his leg was torn off by shrapnel and his arm was broken.

“The first sound I heard was like thunder. I got blown into the air, thrown to the ground and I could see my leg had gone. My arm was pouring with blood and I was just screaming for help."

Maksym says he is a 'refugee in my own country'. Credit: ITV News

Maksym was conscious throughout his horrific ordeal, and now suffers with phantom pains where his leg once was. He no longer has nightmares about it. He doesn’t have dreams anymore either.

“Financially, we have nothing. No house. Our home is destroyed. I’m a refugee in my own country.”

His mother Olena rarely leaves his bedside. As soon as I sat next to her, and started to ask her about the day it happened she broke down.

“As a mother, it is so hard, so painful to see your child lying helpless, and you can’t help him. He is my rock. I want him to get back on his feet and have a life. He is my pride and joy. My only child.“

Maksym's mother, Olena, is consumed with worry about her son's recovery after the is discharged. Credit: ITV News

Olena’s husband is disabled. She is his carer and will now have to be her son’s too. She wants Maksym to have a prosthetic limb, but doesn’t know where or how to start the process.

“Nobody can promise us anything. That’s what scares me. Once we leave the hospital, that’s it.”

No comfort is enough. It is real, tangible help these patients need, and this is just one hospital in one town in Ukraine where numerous patients have had amputations. Some have had several limbs removed. This is happening to soldiers but to many civilians as well, and getting rehabilitation for them is much more difficult.

Mental health support in Ukraine is a relatively new treatment, and right now, it’s in short supply for those who are struggling.

I chatted to Vita Yatcenko, an orthopaedic surgeon on the ward.

“Since the start of this war we’ve had double the number of patients and we’ve got a totally new range of injuries that we’ve never faced before. [These patients] used to be able to walk, to have a full life, then this happens.

"They often think it’s the end of their life. Much more support is needed when they leave hospital and get home.”

Rehabilitation for Ukrainians who have had limbs amputated is limited. Credit: ITV News

Vita has performed 10 amputations in this hospital in recent weeks.

“I know doctors shouldn’t feel sorry for their patients but I feel so sad for them, soldiers and civilians. It’s hard for me not to feel hatred towards Russia.”

Out of necessity, Ukrainians have had to get very good, very quickly in the science and art of prosthetics. After Russia seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014, war injuries have multiplied, and this conflict is only adding to that. The government funds healthcare in this country, but the prosthetics industry is being forced to expand.

Andrii Ovcharenko is the director of Parashar Industries. His company makes artificial limbs using components from the UK, the US and Germany.

“Because of the Russian aggression, the number of amputees has increased dramatically. We have double the number of enquiries.”

Ukrainians have had to get up to speed with manufacturing prosthetics quickly. Credit: ITV News

Many of their patients have served in the military, and for soldiers wounded while defending their country, their sense of purpose and belief in the cause helps them cope psychologically with amputation. They often approach their recovery differently to civilians.

Andrii told me: “When soldiers lose legs, they come here and say to us, make me a prosthetic quickly. I want to get back to the frontline to continue the fight.”

But for those who fear conflict, managing a new normal is much more difficult. Olexii Belinksy was trying to flee Irpin, near Kiev when mortars hit on 1st March. He lost his right arm in the attack.

Olexii said he is trying to accept 'what has happened to me'. Credit: ITV News

“I heard a whistling. We dropped to the floor. There was a big explosion. I remember everything very clearly but I didn’t feel anything, just a ringing in my ears.

"Soldiers were screaming: ‘Stay down, stay down. Is anyone alive? Is anyone injured?’

"They turned me over and immediately I realised what had happened to me.

"I did think I might die on that journey. Now I know what it is like to come close.

"War is frightening. Nobody wants it. I still can’t comprehend what is happening.”

Olexii is right-handed. He will need to teach himself how to write again, but he did tell me that he’s managed to change a lightbulb by himself recently. It took a lot longer than normal but he was proud of himself.

“It’s important that I accept what has happened to me. I don’t think of myself as a strong person. But, I am trying not to let it stop me from living my life.”

Olexii is originally from Donetsk in the east of Ukraine, where many of his friends are fighting on the frontline, but as he kept talking to me, I realised that these friends of his are part of the DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic), the breakaway state founded by pro-Russian separatists.

In effect, they are fighting for Russia. I find it almost impossible to comprehend how that makes Olexii feel.

There is a cost to war - to the countries that wage it, the soldiers who fight it, and the civilians who endure it. This is a war that terrifies ordinary people and the injustice of this invasion weighs heavy.

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