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The Long Road to Recovery Runs Through Israel

Drawing on their knowledge of injuries caused by wars and terrorism, Israeli doctors care for Ukrainian soldiers wounded in battle

by
Hillel Kuttler
January 04, 2023
Pierre Crom/Getty Images
Paramedics of the Ukrainian 5th assault regiment evacuate a wounded Ukrainian soldier on the frontline in New York, Ukraine, on Dec. 21, 2022Pierre Crom/Getty Images
Pierre Crom/Getty Images
Paramedics of the Ukrainian 5th assault regiment evacuate a wounded Ukrainian soldier on the frontline in New York, Ukraine, on Dec. 21, 2022Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Aleksander advanced his wheelchair, opened a small refrigerator and removed a container to pour milk into my coffee, then offered a pastry from a box sporting the logo of an Israeli bakery chain. Bags of cookies and black bread, a jar of jam, a sack of sugar, and containers of grapes and strawberries covered the top of an adjacent dresser. Tall bottles of water lined a short wall below a wide window looking down toward the Mediterranean Sea from room 103 in the rehabilitation wing of Barzilai Medical Center, in Ashkelon.

The food came courtesy of the city’s residents who have visited Aleksander, 38, and his roommate, Piotr, 53, Ukrainian soldiers recuperating from catastrophic battle injuries sustained in Russian attacks. Get-well cards, many sporting the blue and yellow of their country’s flag, hung from similarly hued sectional curtains by Piotr’s bed. They were painted by children at a picnic in a Tel Aviv park that the visitors, most of them immigrants from Ukraine, organized for the two men. On other occasions, they drove Aleksander and Piotr to Ashkelon’s marina and national park for sightseeing. At a Shabbat dinner at the apartment of Vera Zelikov, the head of Barzilai’s housekeeping department, Aleksander and Piotr—who asked that only their first names be used in this article—donned kippot.

The outreach has gladdened the men since they arrived in the country, and at the hospital, on Oct. 27. Piotr knew no Jews in Ukraine; Aleksander knew one: his employer at a landscape company.

“They’re like family,” Piotr said of the visitors.

This room and this country are the men’s home until late January. They’ll have completed physical therapy by then, been fitted for prosthetics, undergone training in how to use them, walked out wearing the devices and headed home to new lives.

The war in Ukraine reduced Aleksander and Piotr to one leg between them.

This story isn’t about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s criticisms of Israel for not supplying his country defensive materiel against Russia’s missile attacks, or about Israel’s response that the choice isn’t black and white between good and evil—that, while Israel supports Ukraine, its own air force’s ability to strike Iranian weapons shipments in Russian-controlled regions of Syria depends on Jerusalem’s diplomatic maneuverings with Moscow.

Nor is it about the audacity of the leadership of a country that did close to nothing to stop the massacres of Jews in Ukraine’s forests, villages, and towns during WWII now playing the morality card against the Jewish state.

It’s about Israel helping Ukraine by taking care of Ukrainians.

It’s about Israel—having, by unfortunate necessity, acquired expertise in treating thousands of its own soldiers and civilians maimed by wars and terrorism—getting Ukraine’s warriors quite literally back on their feet with cutting-edge prosthetics, physical therapy, and rehabilitation.

It’s about two people: Aleksander and Piotr.

They are among the 20 Ukrainian soldiers, all recent amputees, whom Israel’s Ministry of Health is committed to assisting. The first six arrived this autumn; two men returned home following treatment, and two others remain at Israeli hospitals.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, explained that while his country provides prosthetics and rehabilitative care “at a very high level,” the “scale of the problem” is overwhelming. Korniychuk said he appreciates Israel’s stepping in and hopes that additional Ukrainian amputees receive treatment in Israel beyond the first 20.

How many Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have lost limbs in the war is unknown, Korniychuk said, but “the number is huge.”

“We do admire the ability and the willingness of the Israeli government to help. There’s no doubt that the Israeli people are helping a lot,” he said. “They have a big heart.”

As to the intergovernmental tension over the weaponry issue, Korniychuk said, “I would not call it a diplomatic problem,” but it was “a big embarrassment for our president because he is a Jew and his expectation from Jerusalem was much higher.”

“The humanitarian aid is very important, but you cannot win the war with bandages,” he continued. “You need protection tools, defensive equipment.”

Ukraine Ambassador Korniychuk, at right wearing a jacket, meets at the Barzilai Medical Center in November with patients Aleksander, at left, and Piotr. Also in attendance are the hospital's CEO, Chezy Levy, center, and rehab department head Dr. Michael Warschavsky, left.

Ukraine Ambassador Korniychuk, at right wearing a jacket, meets at the Barzilai Medical Center in November with patients Aleksander, at left, and Piotr. Also in attendance are the hospital’s CEO, Chezy Levy, center, and rehab department head Dr. Michael Warschavsky, left.Barzilai Medical Center

Israel’s cost to treat the 20 soldiers and provide their prosthetics is about $3 million, said Alon Shoham, an official of Mashav, the Foreign Ministry’s department for coordinating humanitarian and developmental programs abroad.

Weeks after Russia launched the war on Feb. 24, Israel’s Health Ministry set up a field hospital in Mostyska, a Ukrainian town near the western border with Poland. Israeli assistance has flowed continuously since, including from nonprofit organizations and individual citizens.

Ukrainian military doctors regularly visit Israel to train in battlefield medicine. Israeli physicians hold video consultations with their Ukrainian peers. Israelis pack boxes of medication they’ve purchased or donated to send to Ukraine.

On Dec. 2-3, Boris Brill made a 30-hour visit to Warsaw to bring pharmaceuticals to be trucked to Ukraine. He returned to Israel, where he practices anesthesiology and intensive care, and planned to leave a few days later for Lviv, Ukraine—his sixth trip to the region in the war’s 10 months. On one return flight, Brill brought a 9-year-old Ukrainian girl to Israel with her mother so the child could undergo skin transplants after suffering severe burns from a Russian attack; someone he knows covered their plane tickets and medical care. Brill paid $10,000 from his own pocket for five eight-kilowatt generators for Ukrainian hospitals and clinics enduring power outages.

That’s quite an expense, I remarked to Brill, who isn’t even from Ukraine. He is a native of the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia.

“Listen, people are dying,” said Brill, pivoting to mention other Israelis who’ve lent a hand, like a friend who paid to bring a Ukrainian woman to Israel for cancer treatment.

“Israel assists. Everyone is helping, but it will not be enough. There’s been so much damage, so many wounded and so many refugees. The number of wounded there—even if we worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it won’t be enough,” he said. “But every bit of help is important, because, at the end of the day, we’re talking about people’s suffering.”

That pain has befallen Ukraine in abundance. That’s why 14 Ukrainian psychologists came to Israel in late November for instruction in counseling trauma victims, after 16 psychologists had visited in August. All 30 were women, due to Ukraine’s travel restrictions on able-bodied males of fighting age. The groups were sponsored by Mashav, which had reached out to its alumni in Ukraine when the war began to arrange a webinar on counseling special-needs children during the crisis.

“We do our small part to strengthen the social fabric, to show the social resilience,” Shoham said. “We’re trying to give them tools to … rebuild a society under attack.” His colleague, Irit Savion, said the psychologists came seeking “tools to deal with concrete situations” in an effort “to bring Ukraine back to reality.”

At Mashav’s building in Haifa, two of the psychologists in the November group, both Kyiv residents, met with me one evening.

The women expressed their intent to maximize their stay in a country all too familiar with trauma counseling.

They want to effectively treat Ukrainian soldiers—who return from battle experiencing nightmares, flashbacks, and post-traumatic shock—and their wives, who “don’t know what to do” to help them, said Nataliia Potseluieva.

The wives need guidance on “building a relationship with a new person, because war changes a person,” she said. Potseluieva’s colleague, Svitlana Teodorovych, quickly added that war “takes his soul away.”

“We study Israel’s experience in working with such people, with their traumatic experiences and their rehabilitation, and it’s useful for us,” Potseluieva said. “Israel is ready for this; our country isn’t.”

Attending an Israeli soldier’s presentation on the mental and physical dimensions of rehabilitation got Potseluieva and Teodorovych thinking about creating a motivational program for traumatized soldiers and civilians, they said.

“The Israeli experience shows us that life continues, that we can smile and continue to enjoy life,” Potseluieva said.

Said Teodorovych: “So many people in Ukraine stopped living. They’re paralyzed. They don’t know what to do. Here, we got information on how to communicate with people in a psychological way so they do not stop living.”

Ukraine’s challenge is long-term and intense. The psychologists displayed on their phones drawings made by some of their 6-year-old patients. Several depicted improvised bomb shelters. Others were of gravestones meant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. A girl wearing green shorts and a green top in a photo lost both parents in a bombing. The father of another girl was tortured. A third image showed an 11-year-old boy whose brother is in Russian captivity. Additional photos showed smashed buildings, schools with windows blown out, and a skull-and-crossbones sign warning pedestrians of mines lying nearby.

Potseluieva and Teodorovych each have three children. All see the destruction. They know how to reach safety if a missile hits their schools.

The psychologists’ patients include women and children attacked and raped by Russian soldiers. They counsel Ukrainian soldiers. Kyiv’s city government had sent the psychologists to Israel to learn and then convey their knowledge to other mental health professionals back home.

“We are like birds who fly here to get this new experience,” Teodorovych said, “and share it with our people.”

On a recent morning in Barzilai’s physical therapy department, Aleksander strained on a weight machine. He sat erect, his arms pressing down on the machine’s cable handle and then letting it slowly rise. After 10 minutes, his gray T-shirt exposed small circles of sweat. He wiggled from the seat onto his wheelchair and did lifts against its sidebars. He wheeled the chair, maneuvered face down onto a raised mattress, and did 20 pushups. A physical therapist turned Aleksander over and handed him an enormous, 10-kilogram weight ball that he pressed out from his body 10 more times. The two then played a form of catch with a 1-kilogram ball.

Aleksander lay on his back and placed the heavy ball upon his groin. That stabilized his body because his legs were amputated high on the thighs, and he did 10 situps.

He stopped and exhaled loudly. His shirt was soaked. He wheeled himself to an elevator to return to his room.

“He has great will,” said the physical therapist, Remez Namar.

Watching Aleksander, Natalia Gushchyn was asked why he’d put himself through the heavy workout.

“Think about it,” she said. “They have to live the same lives we live, but with prosthetic legs. Each one weighs eight to 10 kilos. They have to be in shape to carry that extra weight.”

Gushchyn, a physician, isn’t involved in the men’s treatment. She came to the room, as she does most days when time permits, to offer conversation, companionship, familiarity. Gushchyn immigrated to Israel seven years ago from the Ukrainian city of Dniepropetrovsk, where she specialized in treating tuberculosis. The disease’s rarity in Israel prompted her switch to rehabilitation.

Another physician, Galina Novokhatko, immigrated 22 years ago from a city near there, Krivoy Rok. Novokhatko is the assistant director of Barzilai’s internal medicine department and also isn’t treating the men, but, like Gushchyn, visits them regularly. Her husband, a fellow immigrant from Ukraine, had an appointment at the hospital but didn’t visit the soldiers, concerned he’d cry in front of them.

Novokhatko is the one who purchased the refrigerator in their room. No big deal, she said.

“I make a good living,” she explained. “It’s because they’re Ukrainian. They’re like my family.”

Novokhatko’s and her husband’s loved ones live in “a very bad situation” in Krivoy Rok because of Russian attacks, she said. Their apartments have gas, but electricity and water come sporadically or not at all. People chop trees for firewood. The economy cratered.

“All of life has been affected,” she said. “It’s painful, what’s happening there.” Usually, when she stops in to see Aleksander and Piotr, the three discuss their families and the situation in their homeland. “They said things will be OK, and they’ll help evict the Russians—but how, with no legs?”

Aleksander can’t, or doesn’t want to, remember what knocked him unconscious and caused his legs’ amputation—either a mine he stepped on or a missile strike. “It could be both,” he said.

He knows it occurred on June 22, three months into his military service. He endured 10 operations in five hospitals before reaching Israel, the first surgery taking off both legs, the second trimming more—“to prepare the stump for a prosthetic,” he said. Shrapnel was removed at yet another hospital, but some was kept in his left arm. Several dozen stitches and red spots remain visible on both sides of the arm.

Aleksander arrived at the first hospital without his phone or documents, so locating him proved challenging for his wife, Marina. She found him after three days and stayed two weeks in a rented room and a hotel near the hospital. Three weeks later, she returned with the couple’s daughter Valeria, 15.

Piotr’s life changed the evening of May 1. He’d volunteered to fight—“no one had to tell me,” he said—and was in a village with four other soldiers when a Russian missile fell. He felt great pain, but didn’t lose consciousness. He credited superior first aid with saving him. Piotr lost his left leg about halfway down the shin, but hasn’t endured nightmares these seven months. He feels lucky, he said, that from the start “my head is normal.” Others hospitalized with him in Ukraine “did wake up screaming.”

“The amputations were done well. The person who operated did a good job,” Michael Warschavsky, the head of Barzilai’s rehabilitation department, said of both patients. “They came here in good condition.”

Aleksander and Piotr met in the ambulance taking them from Lviv to Warsaw for the flight to Israel. Aleksander is husky and subdued. Piotr is thin and extroverted. Aleksander is from a big city, Zhitomir, lives in a fourth-floor walkup and works as a welder. Piotr farms wheat and oats in the village of Vakulove and owns a house on an expanse of land.

Both men enjoyed good quality of life. They traveled in their country and abroad. Piotr had been to Germany and the Czech Republic. At home, he liked watching soccer on television and spending time with his wife and their four children and four grandchildren. Two of his sons are now serving in Ukraine’s defense.

Piotr appeared uncomfortable being interviewed. He glanced around the room. He was asked what he saw. The children’s painted cards, he said. They remind him warmly of pictures contained in packages he received while on military duty when Russia seized Crimea in 2014.

A Russian-speaking nurse pushed a cart into the room. She took Aleksander’s blood pressure, then Piotr’s.

“For the rest of my life, I’ll always be grateful to Israel, that it welcomed me and gave me care,” Piotr said. His village, he said, was mostly Jewish before WWII. It has gone unscathed in this war, but the nearby city of Nikopol, close to where he was wounded, “has been ruined by bombs,” he said.

As a younger man, Aleksander skied and played soccer and table tennis. Fun in adulthood means going to movies and to the theater, and having cookouts in the forest with friends. Aleksander doesn’t drink, with them or otherwise, because, he said, citing the Latin, in vino veritas—truth comes out with wine. He visited Turkey and Egypt on package deals—Ukrainians prefer such arrangements for their value, he said—but had dismissed nearby Israel because it’s too expensive.

“I knew that it’s the center of religions—Christians and Jews—and is the most important place in the world,” he said. He’s aware that it, like Ukraine, remains the target of enemies’ attacks. Israel’s greenery, Aleksander said, reminds him of the nature he revels in back home. He likes to go fishing, and hopes to do some in Israel.

“From a boat?” he was asked.

Aleksander pointed to his stumps.

“Without legs?” he asked. “How?”

I wondered why not. Aleksander nodded.

I asked what he strove for most while in Ashkelon.

“To learn to walk,” he responded. “I want to walk.”

Zelikov, the hospital administrator, said she hopes that Aleksander and his family move to an apartment on a lower floor or install an elevator in their building.

“But what elevator? There’s no electricity,” Zelikov said, half-smiling. Besides, she said, Aleksander doesn’t consider walking on prosthetic legs up and down four flights of stairs a hardship.

Zelikov was sitting with me on the terrace outside the men’s hospital room. She considered a question on what she’s learned from them.

“That people express optimism to return, to rebuild their lives. They’re sure that Ukraine will be victorious over Russia. That they’re very strong. That Israel is a strong nation, a special nation, wanting to help,” she said. “Listen, these men didn’t once say they’re in pain or uncomfortable, not once, or that something’s not good. They don’t cry. They don’t say, ‘If the war didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have lost my legs.’ They lost their legs, but they didn’t lose hope, their will to live. They’re thankful they’ll be getting prosthetics, thankful to Israel. I’m Israeli, but my heart is with these men. We have to help each other.”

The following week, she assisted some more. Aleksander’s wife and daughter flew to Israel to see him. Zelikov and her husband put them up at their apartment

Hillel Kuttler, a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected]

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