The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlights that, from the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, until April 9, 2023, Ukraine has confirmed 22,734 civilian casualties — 8,490 deaths and 14,244 injuries. OHCHR says the true figures are significantly higher as some incidents have gone unreported. The armed attacks on Ukrainians, which include gunfire, missiles, shelling from artillery, mines, rocket launches and bombings, have led to many injured civilians and military personnel requiring urgent reconstructive surgery, rehabilitation services and prostheses. The UNBROKEN National Rehabilitation Center in Lviv receives many of these patients via ambulances and evacuation trains and provides life-saving emergency care to the wounded. In an interview with The Borgen Project, UNBROKEN offers insight into its efforts to provide crucial assistance to wounded Ukrainians as the war rages on.
When was the organization founded and what does it aim to achieve?
The UNBROKEN National Rehabilitation Center was founded at the onset of the war in February 2022 to treat war-inflicted traumas and injuries. Many of these injured people had lost everything, including their homes and families. The city of Lviv turned into a significant humanitarian hub providing assistance to Ukrainians in need. UNBROKEN aims to ensure that Ukrainians can receive treatment and rehabilitation in their homeland so that they can be close to their relatives and support systems and do not have to seek help abroad. In other words, our goal is to help Ukrainians remain UNBROKEN and get all the necessary help here, in their own country, near their families. The project is implemented by the First Medical Union of Lviv and the Lviv City Council with the support of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine.
What programs did UNBROKEN primarily focus on at the onset of the war?
The team at UNBROKEN realized that a multidisciplinary approach was necessary in order to properly treat injured Ukrainians arriving at the center. For instance, people required assistance in the areas of surgery, burn injuries, orthopedics, prosthesis, rehabilitation and psychosocial rehabilitation. UNBROKEN has a multidisciplinary team providing specialist assistance in these respective fields. The team thoroughly examines a patient’s needs and provides individualized treatment.
In terms of prostheses, UNBROKEN not only fits prostheses but also manufactures some prosthetic devices. The center’s team has fitted more than 200 prostheses for legs and arms but fits a greater number of prostheses for legs because the center lacks sufficient equipment and supplies for arm prostheses, such as bionic hands and arms.
Rehabilitation forms a central part of UNBROKEN’s work. Physical therapists help prepare patients for getting fitted with prostheses, reintegrating after surgery and adapting to life with prostheses.
How have the humanitarian needs changed one year on and what resources does UNBROKEN need in order for the work to continue?
Our needs have remained largely the same but there are waves where we have more injured Ukrainians and waves where we have less of them. But, we still need special equipment, for example, special equipment to connect veins that are human hair size to provide blood to the transplanted areas. We transplant some parts of the muscles to the limbs of our patients so that we can avoid amputation. But, without the proper equipment for intricate surgeries that require, for instance, the sewing of vessels, the work is difficult to do manually. Equipment would allow surgeons to perform these surgeries quickly and with ease. In terms of prostheses, we need more supplies — the more supplies we have, the more people we can fit with prosthetics. We have some rehabilitation equipment of course, but the more we have, the faster patients can rehabilitate. We also need more space and beds for people to stay in hospitals or at the center so that we can provide help to all 24/7.
What are the best examples you’ve seen of the organization’s work making a difference?
UNBROKEN has treated about 11,000 people so far but one of the best examples of our organization’s work making a difference is when, because of our services, a patient does not need an amputation and their limbs are saved. And, when our military patients make a significant recovery and are able to return to the frontlines to defend Ukraine.
The UNBROKEN website tells the story of Veronika, the only survivor of a shelter bombed on April 9, 2023. Russian forces aimed their tank fire at a basement of a nine-story block of flats in Vuhledar town located in the Donetsk Oblast, where Veronika’s family resided. The adults used their bodies as a shield to spare Veronika’s life and succeeded — every family member died but Veronika lived. However, a fragment of the projectile hit her head and the impact ripped off her left-hand thumb and left her with a partially paralyzed hand.
Veronika received treatment and surgery at the Children’s Hospital and doctors managed to save her eye. She must still undergo additional surgery to remove a fragment of a projectile in her head. Veronika suffered memory loss due to the severe trauma and loss she experienced but her memory is now coming back and she is learning to walk again. She celebrated her 10th birthday in a hospital ward in Lviv.
What message would you like to send to advocates in the U.S. and U.K. who are passionate about supporting humanitarian work like yours in Ukraine?
In another UNBROKEN story, after an attack by Russian troops, 15-year-old Nastya tended to her loved one’s injuries, put them in a car and drove to a hospital. Russian troops fired at the car and shot Nastya’s leg but she continued to drive until the car stalled — Nastya drove 30 kilometers while wounded. Nastya’s now late mother taught her how to drive a car early on in her childhood. Individuals like Nastya receive help from the UNBROKEN National Rehabilitation Center to recover and learn how to function again in everyday life.
We rely on fundraising and the support of donors and other organizations to continue treating and rehabilitating injure Ukrainian survivors. To continue operating and conducting these life-saving activities, we require more than 34 million Ukrainian hryvnias (about $920 million) worth of funding. Some of this funding will go toward securing critical equipment and supplies. Through the support of the international community, victims of war can undergo life-saving surgery and be fitted with prostheses and receive rehabilitation to move forward in their lives despite the life-altering trauma and loss they have endured.
– Saiesha Singh
Photos: Courtesy of Emilio Morenatti & Roma Cayman