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‘A new life’: Ukrainian war amputees travel to Germany for custom-made limbs

Pavlo Kushnirov was among the Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the eastern city of Bakhmut with the 114th territorial defense brigade on a sunny day last winter when Russian shelling changed his life forever.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has killed tens of thousands and left even more with lost limbs and other life-altering injuries since the full-scale invasion began in February 2022. German officials estimate there are between 30,000 and 50,000 Ukrainian amputees as a result of the conflict.

Obtaining adequate prosthetic limbs and care is tough inside Ukraine. Now a German non-governmental organization is working to bring wounded Ukrainian soldiers to Berlin so they can be fitted with custom-made artificial limbs and given treatment that will allow them to lead as normal a life as possible.

Kushnirov and Sayko-Kazakov are among the first of 60 severely wounded Ukrainian soldiers who will receive treatment in Germany, thanks to the Berlin-based NGO “Life Bridge Ukraine.” They hope to start what they see as a new life soon. “My doctor called and said there was an opportunity to go abroad for me to receive prosthetics. So, I said OK,” Vitaliy said. “Once there were hundreds of us, now there are thousands of people like me.”

Limbs amputated quickly to save lives

Bending over Kushnirov’s leg stumps, he softly felt along them. “Are you in pain?” he asked. Kushnirov shook his head as a translator relayed the question. “Let me know if anything hurts,” Gänsl said, taking out a tape to measure the stumps. He and other orthopedic technicians assessed the condition of Kushnirov’s limbs.

Battlefield conditions in Ukraine mean limbs must often be amputated quickly to save soldiers’ lives. “The severity of the amputations often leave the survivors with stumps that won’t allow for the fitting of regular-sized prosthetics,” said Gänsl. “And of course we are dealing here with completely different requirements (than what orthopedic technicians are used to in Germany).”

It will be relatively easy to provide a prosthesis for Kushnirov’s right leg, Gänsl said. However, his left leg will be more difficult to treat because it was amputated above the knee.

“I jumped away and pulled my legs into my chest to protect myself from the explosion which I knew was coming. But look at my legs, they are injured badly.”

Sitting in a wheelchair with his left leg amputated and the other one badly bruised and shattered, Omelchenko added: “But at least I am still alive.”

Keen to save his damaged leg, doctors in Germany kept it in a metal frame, or external fixator, at first while it healed. That has just been removed and he will be fitted with a prosthesis on the other leg soon.

A bridge between two capitals

Janine von Wolfersdorff, a Berlin-based financial expert who became involved in humanitarian aid work in Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion, is the initiator of Life Bridge Ukraine, a project which is being run in partnership between the German and Ukrainian capitals. Under its auspices, experts in workshops in Berlin will make new limbs and teach the 60 patients chosen for treatment how to walk and move again.

“We want to give Ukrainian war-wounded soldiers a new life – and simultaneously want to train six Ukrainians for three months here in Berlin, who will learn to build very good quality prosthetics so that they can do it themselves in Kyiv.”

Von Wolfersdorff is collaborating closely with Kyiv’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko and Berlin’s Governing Mayor Kai Wegner on the project, hoping that a prosthetics center will be opened in Kyiv later this year. Ultimately, her group wants to open further prosthetics centres in other Ukrainian cities as well. “The trainees learn here first-hand when a stump may need another amputation, another surgery, when a scar needs to be attended to again, and other issues that arise during this very complex process,” Von Wolfersdorff said.

Havrylov said he wants to learn “as much as possible from the Germans and maybe even get better at it so that we can open our center in Kyiv and help there. Unfortunately, there will be more people with injuries. We need good workshops to provide our Ukrainians with a good life. We need to bring them back into society.”

Life Bridge Ukraine has collected around $600,000 in donations for the project, including for the care of the soldiers in Berlin. “It is a long process of recuperation,” Von Wolfersdorff said. “We seek a holistic treatment approach: In addition to a lot of physiotherapy, patients are offered psychological help, as well as nutritional advice, to reintegrate themselves into as normal as possible a life.”

‘Completely new way of learning to walk’

With the help of the medical and orthopedic technician teams Sayko-Kazakov took his first steps using them. “These are cool feet. Really fine work.”

For Kushnirov, the initial fitting was trickier because of the artificial knee joint on one limb. “Unfortunately walking will be more difficult for him,” Gänsl explained. “It is a completely new way of learning how to walk.”

Kushnirov knows his rehabilitation process will take time, but he is determined to keep trying. “It’s a shame I am losing so much time getting rehabilitated and I know it will still take me a lot of time. But of course, my life will improve,” he said. “But it’s hard to say what life will be like after my prosthetics fittings. I know it will be different.”

Sayko-Kazakov, Kushnirov and the other soldiers with new artificial limbs will receive a lot of training on how to move again in the coming weeks in Berlin. Any final adjustments that are needed will be made before they receive their permanent prosthetic fittings and leave to be cared for back home in Ukraine.

“It is a lot of fun working together with our highly motivated patients and Ukrainian trainees, we see so much progress,” Gänsl said. However, there will be challenges ahead for these soldiers even with their final artificial limbs. “Prosthetic fittings need to be adjusted again and again. It is a lifelong process,” he said. “After all, bodies change. Just as we occasionally put on weight over Christmas or lose weight when exercising, a stump does not grow with you.”

Both Sayko-Kazakov and Kushnirov are determined to return to Ukraine soon, walking comfortably with their new artificial limbs. They say they are ready to support their units back home as they fight to fend off Russian forces.

“The war is not yet over. Our work is not yet finished,” Sayko-Kazakov said. “I often think of the guys who worked with me at the front line. So many lost their lives. So many I carried out on my shoulders. It hurts. When we go back, we can be useful on the home front, for example assembling drones.”

Kushnirov acknowledges his limitations. “I know I won’t be able to walk again just like others do. I won’t be able to fight at the front line anymore,” he said, “but there are a lot of other things I can do: I could operate a drone or take care of repair and maintenance works. Wherever I can help, I will do so. I will continue to fight for Ukraine.”

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