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OAKDALE, MINNESOTA— When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 of last year, Oleh Dubovyi and his wife Natalia Dubova were shocked. Like many Ukrainians, they were unaware of the impending Russian threat. The retired train operator and the nurse had lived and raised their children in the small town of Chortkiv in Western Ukraine for years, in peace.
Like many others from the town, the pair participated in health screenings to determine their eligibility to join the army. Oleh was immediately accepted, which ended his brief year of retirement, and he was put on the front lines to fight.
Just over a year later, Oleh’s duty station was hit by a Russian missile, resulting in severe wounds that required amputation at the hip on both legs. Doctors in Ukraine told the Dubovyi family that Oleh would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life.
A group in Minnesota helped change that outcome, however. The Protez Foundation, which connects Ukrainians living with amputations to customized prosthetics and rehabilitation, gave Oleh the chance to walk again.
Yakov Gradinar, a certified prosthetist and orthotist with the foundation, was working with Oleh when Direct Relief visited the foundation in August. Protez provides prosthetics to children and soldiers who have lost limbs during the Russo-Ukrainian War, and since December 2022, has provided over 260 high-quality prostheses and over 90 prosthetics. At the time of Direct Relief’s visit, six patients and their families were participating, the thirteenth group to take part in the program.
In less than three days at Protez, Oleh was four inches off the ground. While it’s a long way from the nearly six feet that he used to stand at Natalia’s side, they say it’s one of many victories along Oleh’s journey to recovery.
Gradinar, who is also the co-founder and chief medical officer at the foundation, is a Ukrainian American already practicing prosthesis work in the Twin City area. When the war began, Gradinar quit his job and began working out of his garage with co-founder Yury Aroshidze to support their fellow countrymen.
Aroshidze began managing the program and securing funding so that they could help more people, and even used their own money to rent an office space in Oakdale for the clinic. The local Ukrainian-American community and residents who have experienced prosthesis care in the past have volunteered their time and donated items to support the program.
“If you believe in people and that God can move mountains, you can see that this project is a miracle,” Aroshidze said through an interpreter.
While Protez has recently opened a clinic in Ukraine, some patients are flown to the U.S. as a reprieve from the combat environment and are fitted for prosthetics. They spend at least three weeks, sometimes more, learning to use their bionic limbs and have access to familial-like support through the Ukrainian-American community.
INJURIES OF WAR
More than 18 months into the conflict, Ukraine’s eastern border and parts of the south remain under Russian control. Ukraine has been the target of cyberattacks, mass power outages, and missile strikes over the last few months, and food crisis at the global level is expected given limited Ukrainian exports, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. It’s unclear how many people have died or been injured since the start of the war.
In June, Ukraine’s President lowered the age of conscription to 18, requiring all Ukrainian men up to age 60, participate in the war. This will require almost all the participants in Protez’s current cohort to return to military service once they have healed.
Oleh is the oldest participant in the current Protez cohort at age 57. He’s expected to stay in the United States for at least three months while learning to walk on prosthetics, but when he returns to Ukraine, he’ll return to military service.
When the war began, Oleh persuaded his infantry to practice basic first-aid skills to protect one another—as a result, his compatriots were able to save his life. When a missile landed, they tied tourniquets around Oleh’s legs and carried him on a gurney for a mile-and-a-half to a field hospital. He was eventually sent to an intensive care unit for eight days, where his legs were amputated.
His wife, Natalia, wears a gold pendant with an engraving of Mother Mary and Jesus, and when she was allowed to visit her husband in the hospital, she began to pray for his life. A nurse of 33 years, she instantly understood the severity of his life-threatening condition.
Though Oleh was conscious, he was still in shock, and had lost a lot of blood, and the emotional and physical trauma was great. Amputees are at greater risk for sepsis, meningitis, and vascular diseases. Given the nature of the amputations, Oleh was expected to be wheelchair-bound while having trouble sitting for long periods of time.
“Every meter matters and every step matters,” Natalia said through an interpreter. “It will take a lot of time and effort to move forward.”
While Oleh’s injuries are severe, he’s not the only one recuperating at Protez. The half dozen people recovering have their own harrowing stories of battle, injury, and ultimately, survival.
Vitalii Chukhno, 47, stepped on a land mine but was able to tie his own tourniquet and radio his comrades for help. He fell unconscious on the way to the hospital, and when he awoke, his right foot and ankle had been amputated. The first thing he did was call his wife, an operating room nurse, who had experienced many sleepless nights since her husband joined the military. She and their 18-year-old daughter evacuated Ukraine to Bulgaria for three months when Russia first invaded. They’ve since returned to Ukraine, and Chukhno’s wife was happy to hear that his injuries were manageable.
Chukhno’s injury, an amputation below the knee, can be supported by a prosthetic at $6,000 that will last three to five years. Other prosthetics, which replace a full limb, can cost upwards of $15,000 per arm or $27,000 per leg. The liners and sockets that protect the skin inside of the prosthetics can cost over $1,000.
Another Protez participant, Mykala Voronchuk, a right-handed 32-year-old, was drafted in August of 2022. He was on the front lines when Russian soldiers began to shoot towards his infantry. After two hours of battle, Voronchuk ran out of bullets as a machine gun approached him. He fell into a trench but had been hit in the arm. Voronchuk said that three of his compatriots were taken into captivity while he was left to freeze to death in the winter weather. As more Ukrainian troops entered the area, a Russian soldier fell in the trench beside him. Voronchuk took the other soldier’s clothing and used it to make a tourniquet for his wounds.
That evening, a drone flew over the area. Voronchuk waved, signaling signs of life and was rescued. His right arm was amputated at the hospital.
Danyil Khodykin, 20, also lost his dominant hand. The young soldier was a passenger in a car when a missile landed next to them, causing the vehicle to flip multiple times. He was evacuated by helicopter and taken to a hospital. When Khodykin awoke, he was numb. When he saw blood on the lower part of his body, he tried to touch his leg to check the damage. That’s when he realized his right hand was no longer there.
“I thought, ‘There’s so much blood, that’s too bad because that was a new pair of pants’,” he joked through an interpreter, able to bring levity to his situation.
A DAY AT PROTEZ
Each day at the Protez Foundation begins with a motivational speech from Gradinar. In prosthetics, 30% of recovery success is based on the machinery, and 70% is attitude, he said. Throughout the day, the patients are fit and cast for prosthetics and learn rehabilitation exercises. They lift weights, kick soccer balls, punt volleyballs, and write letters and numbers. The clinic has a familial atmosphere as children play, and the group shares jokes and watches television together during breaks. At the end of the workday, the patients go to shared apartments or stay in the homes of locals who are willing to share an extra bedroom.
They’ve all earned a spot at Protez, a highly coveted program in Ukraine for amputees. Aroshidze said everyone must apply online and they filter participants based on when their injuries happened and the type of care that is needed. They select a diverse group of candidates to ensure Protez can afford the equipment in each round and so that the participants can learn and grow together.
Much of the funding that supports Protez has come from individual giving. Minnesota has a significant Ukrainian-American population. Minnesota Compass, a project led by Wilder Research, reported that more than 16,000 Ukrainian Americans live in the state and one in four were born outside of the U.S. All of the food that is used for group meals is donated each day and cooked by local families who want to see the soldiers and children recover from their injuries.
Both Gradinar and Aroshidze’s families emigrated to the United States from Ukraine. They’ve each built a supportive community in their personal lives, which pours over into Protez. Aroshidze’s business connections have created access to apartments for the participants. Former patients of Gradinar, even those who have no familial connection to Ukraine, volunteer their time, including Coach Adam, an American resident who wears a prosthesis on his left leg, and leads each cohort in afternoon workout sessions.
His high-impact and high-intensity trainings are talked about across cohorts, according to Gradinar.
“Coach Adam is one of their favorites,” Gradinar said, laughing.
These human connections and heartfelt donations are part of why program participants said they feel welcomed and at ease.
When Oleh left the ICU, Natalia started a Facebook page to document his progress for their friends and family in their hometown. The page’s popularity grew and supporters across Ukraine began sending their family information on available programs for assistance—including Protez.
She spoke with Gradinar over the phone before the trip and said that he sounded approachable and empathetic. Natalia said he has answered every question they’ve had and eased their concerns about Oleh’s recovery.
While Oleh is expected to stay in America for several months, the couple said his journey is one of many wins and victories; he’ll just have to take it one step at a time.
Direct Relief supported the Protez Foundation with $1,070,000 in financial aid so the group can expand their mission to support those injured by the war in Ukraine.