Medivac coordinator Svitlana Druzenko talks to NV about her work at one of the mobile field hospitals on the battlefields of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
Hundreds of medics have met the challenge of the war head-on, standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine’s heroic defenders, saving lives of soldiers and civilians alike under relentless enemy fire.
The Nikolay Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital (FVMH), named after the renowned surgeon, consists of around 600 highly-qualified medical practitioners from Ukraine, the United States, Canada, the UK, and other countries. Ever since the outbreak of the conflict in 2014, they have worked to treat wounded in Donbas. These days, the reality of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has spread their focus all around the country.
FVMH volunteers have their hands full in eastern Ukraine. They respond to incoming Russian missile and air strikes, rushing to provide medical care to the injured and stabilizing patients at the frontline before they are transported to proper hospitals across major cities.
Deputy Medical Director of FVMH Svitlana Druzenko told NV what her work looks like during the war.
Druzenko: I was particularly affected by two sisters – girls aged twelve and nine – injured in a missile strike at Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast. The older sister sustained a head injury, while the younger one had a chest wound, affecting her lungs. I was at the intensive care unit where the older girl was pulled back from clinical death. Tragically, she died a week later, still in hospital. It’s harrowing to see children suffer this way before your eyes.
We initially planned to base your operations in the “green” or “yellow” zones, treating patients, coming in from the “red” one (color-coding indicates the risk of incoming fire at a particular area of the battlefield). Any-where in eastern Ukraine could be a “red” zone these days, however. We work in Slovyansk, for example, and the city is shelled every single day. Or Chasiv Yar: Russian rockets struck a house where we were receiving in-coming wounded. Incidents like that keep happening, so you could say weend up in “red” zones anyway.
We don’t rush in towards areas of immediate active firefights – those are covered by professional combat medics, who are trained military people, carrying their wounded battle brothers from under direct fire before leaving them in our care.
We have several response scenarios depending on the call. If it’s a military emergency, we would take wounded soldiers right there on the road. We also have makeshift patient pickup locations, where our troops bring their injured. These locations are not widely shared, and we have to constantly move them around. One of our brigades had to change their location three times during one shift, as they kept getting hit by airstrikes. There are effectively no proper rules of engagement in this war, so we had to paint camo all over our ambulances, since medics are a priority targets for the Russians. At any of our pickup locations, we camouflage our ambulances, to avoid detection by enemy drones.
In general, the war as it is today is very different from 2014. This is a war of artillery, meaning that 85% of all injuries are caused by explosions, and not small arms fire. There aren’t bullets one could extract from a wound. These are horrific wounds, full of shrapnel, leaving people with torn torsos and heads, lost limbs. Even civilian doctors, who live and work in Donbas, say they’ve never seen anything like it.
Enemy artillery positions are not far from here, so air raid sirens are often simply not fast enough to give a proper warning. Attacks are always sudden, often targeting civilian structures where there are many wounded people.
We’re on our third personnel rotation in eastern Ukraine. One tour lasts for a month, with at least 600 people having worked with our hospital in the last eight years. Some are not eager to enlist, but sill want to do what they can to bring forth our shared victory. Paramedics, nurses, surgeons, trauma specialists, anesthesiologists, ER doctors – around 30 highly-quali-fied medical professionals deploy to every such rotation of ours. We train newcomers, explaining that we work pro bono and that drinking is strictly prohibited. Based on individual psychological profiles, we organize them into teams, which then spend a week working on their internal cohesion. Civilian doctors are trained how to work under fire and provide medical care in battlefield conditions.
We’re based around the country’s east, living in hospitals. We don’t have a set schedule or regular breaks, as medics have to work around the clock– there’s always work to do. We treated over 500 patients in May alone. Often doctors get no rest at all, and I have to order them to go and get some sleep.
It’s difficult to isolate a single particularly intense day, but I’d probably say there was a stretch of time like that, in Bakhmut. The city was under constant shelling at the time. Our medics were in surgery throughout the day against a backdrop of a staccato of explosions. The place was then very noisy at night, and we had to go down to the air raid shelter to sleep. It was a difficult and exhausting time, but everyone made it through in one piece, thankfully. Although one of our team leaders, an intensive care and anesthesia specialist, died from a hear attack two days after finishing his rotation.
Many foreigners are eager to work with us, but I’m not too keen on that. Most of them don’t know the language, and clear patient-medic communication is absolutely crucial under pressure. The language barriers can be very detrimental when the situation calls for quick decisions-making. For example, we have to plan and discuss contingency plans and evacuation routes – in case we end up in the middle of an attack – and it can be tricky to translate all that. Miscommunication poses greatest risks to foreign citizens themselves.
Nevertheless, they tend to be excellent professionals, so we group them in teams of their own. We had people from the UK, the United States, Germany, Austria, and even Corsica working with us. There are some kinks to iron out, to be sure. For instance, UK doctors stopped using fixation collars for patients’ neck some 15 years ago, so they can get surprised by some-thing like that from time to time, but it hardly affects our work in any significant way. Every single one of them is as eager to see us victorious as any Ukrainian.