Doctors stay in war-affected Ukrainian towns: ‘People need us’



Vanda Banderovska, 79, sits inside the center for displaced people near Mykolaiv, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Monday, August 8, 2022. Banderovska’s house near Mykolaiv was destroyed by artillery Russian. Her 53-year-old son Roman was fatally injured and she was taken to hospital badly bruised and barely conscious. (AP Photo/Evgeny Maloletka)


Dr Ilona Butova almost looks out of place in her neatly squeezed lavender scrubs as she steps through a door frame that hangs from a collapsed wall in what was once an administrative office at her hospital in Zolochiv.

Not a single building at the facility in the northeastern Ukrainian city near the Russian border escaped the artillery fire.

Since the invasion of Russia on February 24, the space to treat patients in the hospital has steadily decreased due to the damage. Its staff has shrunk from 120 to 47. And the number of people seeking treatment in the small town 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the border is often higher now than before the fighting began.

Ukraine’s healthcare system has struggled for years with corruption, mismanagement and the COVID-19 pandemic. But the war only made matters worse, with facilities damaged or destroyed, medical personnel moved to safer locations, and many medicines unavailable or in short supply. Care is being delivered to the hardest hit areas by medics who refused to evacuate or rushed in as volunteers, putting themselves in great danger.

“It’s very hard, but people need us. We have to stay and help,” said Butova, a neurologist who is also the administrator of the city hospital near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. She added that she had to do more with fewer resources.

The World Health Organization declared its highest level of emergency in Ukraine the day after the invasion, coordinating a major relief effort there and in neighboring countries whose medical systems are also under strain.

According to UN estimates, around 6.4 million people have fled to other European countries and a slightly higher number are internally displaced. This presents a major challenge for a health care system based on family physician referrals and separate regional governments.

Across Ukraine, 900 hospitals were damaged and another 123 were destroyed, Health Minister Viktor Liashko said, noting: “These 123 are gone, and we need to find new sites to build replacements.”

In addition, dozens of pharmacies and ambulances were destroyed or badly damaged, and at least 18 civilian medical personnel were killed and 59 others seriously injured, he said.

“In occupied areas, the wayfinding system is totally broken,” Liashko told The Associated Press. “People’s health and their lives are in danger.”

Kyiv’s economy has been depleted by the conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014. When he came to power five years later, President Volodymyr Zelensky inherited a health system undermined by the reforms launched under his predecessor which had slashed the government. subsidies and closed many small town hospitals. During the pandemic, people in these communities have had to seek treatment in major cities – sometimes waiting up to eight hours for an ambulance in severe cases of COVID-19.

As Russia has expanded the territory it controls in eastern and southern Ukraine, the supply of drugs to those areas has dwindled, along with the medical personnel to administer them. In the town of Mykolaiv, south of the front line, “things were very difficult”, said volunteer Andrii Skorokhod.

“The pharmacies did not work and the shortages became more and more acute: hospital staff were among those evacuated, including specialists. We just need more staff,” said Skorokhod, who leads a Red Cross initiative to provide residents with free medicine.

Volunteers like Skorokhod saved the life of 79-year-old Vanda Banderovska, whose home near Mykolaiv was destroyed by Russian artillery. Her 53-year-old son Roman was killed and she was taken to hospital badly bruised and barely conscious.

“My son went to get his mobile phone from the car when the Russians started shelling. He was shot in the head,” she said in a recovery room, her voice shaking with emotion. “They destroyed everything and I have nothing left.”

Banderovska said she was deeply grateful to the people who saved her life, but also overcome with grief and anger.

“The pain I feel is so great. When the doctors took me to the hospital, I had black and blue bruises, but I slowly recovered,” she said.


Derek Gatopoulos reported from Kyiv. Vasilisa Stepanenko and Hanna Arhirova contributed to this report from Kyiv.


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