by Olha Omelyanchuk
Oleksandr Zeleniuk, surgeon, and Yaroslav Levchenko, his anesthesiologist partner, are saving soldiers’ lives in a GAZ-66 truck converted into an operating room right in the middle of a field near Sloviansk. They remove shell splinters and bullets from wounds, and sew limbs back on.“We serve in the medical squad of the 25th separate airborne brigade. In our mobile operating room there is space for a surgeon, an anesthesiologist, a washstand and an operating table.This is our workplace and our home,” the doctor told Vesti.
In March 2014, Oleksandr Zeleniuk, a surgeon from Dnipropetrovsk Gastroenterology Institute, was called for a ten-day military training. “This is how I found myself here. It’s already my fifth month. I had never served before, however, I was trained for five years at the military training department of the medical institute. After this training I would have been mobilized in any case, so I joined the ATO as a volunteer without all the unnecessary formalities. In wartime, a doctor is much more useful on a battlefield than at home,” says Oleksandr. According to him, medical teams in individual military detachments are not the only doctors in the East: in the ATO zone there are two medical APCs (which provide nursing services), emergency response teams and quite a few volunteer field doctors.
“When I was leaving for here, we were told that we would receive neither helmets, nor bulletproof vests nor weapons because there is Geneva Convention that forbids shooting at doctors. However, it turned out that we were the first to be fired upon. In the end, it was my wife who collected money to buy a bulletproof vest for me. I was issued a pistol and a short-barreled Kalashnikov rifle. I do not take part in hostilities, but sometimes we have to extricate the wounded from the battlefield and shoot back when the assailants use pinpoint firing against us. We look like ordinary soldiers. For security reasons I even erased some red crosses off the car. By the way, my wife is also a doctor. She works as an obstetrician-gynecologist. She is my homefront,” continues Oleksandr. According to the surgeon, his wife supports his decision to work on the battlefield, while she has decided to remain in Dnipropetrovsk.
On the operating table where Oleksandr works in a bulletproof vest, were dozens of soldiers. “Once they brought us a patient who turned out to be a separatist. He was about 60 years old. He was shot through the hip. At first I did not know who he was, but then it all became clear: lying on the operating table the man sassed and shouted that sooner or later they will kill us all. I just ignored it: all I cared about was that I had a patient with a serious wound. I put emotions aside,” the surgeon says.
According to Oleksandr, during the ATO he had to deal with different types of injuries, including the complex ones. He remembers one soldier whose saving was nothing short of a miracle. “A military with a spinal injury (spinal cord lesion) was delivered to us. He had severe bleeding, his blood pressure was 40/0. It was almost a coma. Together with Yaroslav we managed to save him. If it were not for the speed of the surgery, the soldier would have died. The guy was then taken to the hospital in Izium. He survived, but will remain paralyzed,” Oleksandr says.
Sometimes the surgeon also has had to extricate the wounded during battles. “On one occasion Ukrainian soldiers went to explore the territory near a checkpoint and were ambushed by assailants. When the fighting began, my partner and I rushed to pick up the wounded right under fire. We reached one soldier, but, unfortunately, he was already dead,” Oleksandr recalls.
It’s all about the bullet
The surgeon says that 12 people have died on his operating table. “We struggled for their lives, but death won. When soldiers are dying, they all say the same thing: they call for their mother or their fellow soldiers.” The surgeon believes that a successful outcome of an operation very much depends on whether or not the doctor knows what weapon caused an injury. “For example, the shot of a 7.62 caliber bullet is predictable – it would be lodged where it entered. However, a 5.45 caliber is really dangerous – we may look for a bullet in one place, and find it in a completely different location.”
Oleksandr Zeleniuk says that doctors are also killed on the battlefield. “My friend Andrei Litvinenko was a gunner and a medical orderly, he participated in fighting, but if someone was injured, he rushed to the rescue. This is what happened that day. Andrei saw a wounded soldier, began carrying him on his back, and then he got shot in the back, with the bullet entering his heart. They both died. Andrei wore a Soviet-model bulletproof vest, a so-called tortoise, made of plates with bags attached. The bullet hit an area where there was no bag at all. Andrei is survived by his wife and two children,” Oleksandr says.
“We are using sterile wipes dating back to Soviet times”
When asked about problems experienced by doctors in the ATO zone, Oleksandr Zeleniuk replies: “First of all, there is poor coordination of medical service: once we saw APCs driving past us carrying severely injured soldiers, and they did not even know that we were right there to help. It was only when I went out onto the road with a gun that they learned about us. There is a critical lack of medicines. The stock of sterile wipes is spent very quickly, and those wipes that we received from the army date back to Soviet times. Some instruments I brought from home. We constructed a sterilizer: we boil the instruments and keep them in formalin vapor.“