The war in Ukraine has taken a staggering toll on the country's healthcare system. Attacks on hospitals (as well as on civilian homes and schools) have been a hallmark of the conflict, with healthcare facilities alone tallying nearly 1000 strikes since 24 February 2022.

One notorious incident came just two weeks after the full-scale invasion began, when the Russian air force bombed a maternity and children’s hospital in Mariupol, a city in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. With innocent civilians paying the highest price for the war, Dr. Oleg and his team are working tirelessly to deliver much needed support.

“It was impossible to leave them there alone.”

Before the war, Dr. Oleg had been providing care in a retirement home in Mariupol as well as attending to patients in the outpatient clinic. “I didn’t expect anything bad,” he recalls. “Everything was calm. My patients were happy.”

Dr. Oleg faces the camera
Dr. Oleg, head of the IRC mobile health clinic in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, during a medical appointment. The mobile team reaches people in remote areas which have recently returned under the control of the Government of Ukraine.
Photo: Marek Kowalczyk for the IRC

When full-scale war erupted, and the bombing intensified, his patients couldn't take care of themselves. “It was impossible to leave them there alone.”

Because many of his colleagues couldn’t get to work, Dr. Oleg and the few remaining staff stayed to provide sole support to those who couldn’t escape the shellings.

He describes one particularly harrowing story of a couple he treated after a missile hit their apartment.

“They were living on the eighth floor of a nine-story building, and a rocket hit their house,” he says. “Seven floors collapsed, and they didn’t realize there was nothing below them. They went to a different room, and the floor collapsed down, 30 meters.”

Windows of a residential building in Kharkiv heavily damaged by bombing.
Windows of a residential building in Kharkiv heavily damaged by bombing.
Photo: Tamara Kiptenko for the IRC

Two weeks later, with support from the local authorities, Dr. Oleg and his colleagues were able to evacuate their residents to a nearby village. “At a similar retirement home in Mariupol, half of the patients died,” he says. “Our retirement home was almost fully destroyed, but we’d evacuated people before, so we’d saved lives.”

Doing whatever is required

In April 2022, Dr. Oleg fled to Zaporizhya, a city in the southeast, along with his wife and 82-year-old father. “We drove two cars - in one, I was the driver, and in the second, it was my father,” he recalls. The ordeal took a toll on his father, who passed away two months later. Oleg’s son, also a doctor, had already fled to Uman in central Ukraine.

In Zaporizhya Dr. Oleg began working for an aid organisation, doing whatever was required, from doctoring to driving, even cleaning the office. Next, he moved to Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, where he became head of the IRC mobile medical unit.

Over the past few months, the IRC has been operating a mobile clinic to reach people in need across the Kharkiv region, one of the areas hardest hit by the war.The team works to train health workers and provide crucial mental health support. According to current estimates, 22% of the Ukrainian population suffers from mental health issues ranging from anxiety to psychosis and over 14.5 million people need health assistance.

Nurse Stanislav measures Volodymyr’s blood pressure.
Nurse Stanislav measures Volodymyr’s blood pressure. Volodymyr and his wife live in a remote village without access to medical help.
Photo: Marek Kowalczyk for the IRC

“We go to remote locations and villages, including territories where the healthcare system got damaged,” Dr. Oleg says, emphasising that the IRC works with local communities to identify where - and what is most needed to support people’s recovery

For the dedicated doctor, a typical day involves a trip to a remote village with a team that comprises a driver, nurse and community mobiliser. They’ll see patients, distribute medicines, and monitor people previously treated.

Patient Lidia talks to a member of the IRC medical unit, community mobilizer Darina.
Patient Lidia talks to a member of the IRC medical unit, community mobilizer Darina, during a home visit.
Photo: Marek Kowalczyk for the IRC

Managing without supplies and money

Across Ukraine, the cost of medicines is soaring while pharmacies struggle to access essentials - a consequence of the collapse of the transportation and supply systems. More than a third of households report at least one person forced to forego their medication due to the war. This is why the IRC’s work is so critical right now.

“People cannot carry out the medical activities that are recommended to them,” says Dr. Oleg, let alone hope to obtain needed surgeries. “Many patients need wheelchairs, diapers and medicines.”

Amidst the destruction of health clinics, missile strikes have also damaged around half of Ukraine’s power grid, making it difficult to keep remaining facilities functioning. Dr. Oleg sometimes sees his patients in buildings that do not resemble medical centres anymore:

“In some, there’s nothing, just heating and no water,” says Dr. Oleg. “We use generators and heaters to improve the conditions.” Where no facilities exist, the IRC team makes home visits.

Dr. Oleg provides Alina with her prescription.
Dr. Oleg provides Alina with her prescription. Many people trapped in areas of eastern and southern Ukraine are unable to attend check-ups or pick up medications.
Photo: Marek Kowalczyk for the IRC

What keeps Dr. Oleg going in the face of these challenges and dangers? His patients’ intense gratitude. He recalls a family he helped on a recent shift: “The last time they had seen a doctor was before the war. More than eight months ago. When we came to them, it was so unexpected - they were excited that they were not forgotten. They were emotional, and I, as well as my team, could feel that.”

“It is often the first time since the war escalated that people have an opportunity to see a doctor. They apologise that they have neglected themselves. They say they are just happy to be alive.”

Above all else, says Dr. Oleg, comes the health of the patients. “I'm a doctor, and it’s my vocation. I always worked this way and I will continue working this way.”

Dr. Oleg and community mobilizer Darina Holub pose with patient Lidia.
Dr. Oleg and community mobilizer Darina Holub pose with patient Lidia.
Photo: Marek Kowalczyk for the IRC

How can I help people in Ukraine?

The IRC is continuing to scale up its response in Ukraine, Poland, Moldova and other countries in Europe and in the US to meet the evolving needs of displaced families. In Ukraine, this includes delivering cash supportto ensure people can cover their basic needs; distributing essential items such as dignity kits for women; providing protection services and safe spaces for women and children and legal assistance for people whose homes have been damaged by air strikes, as well as medical aid.

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