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Ukraine war transforms doctor's hospital into 'horror film'

March 7, 2024

Anesthesiologist Valentyna Lisnycha cares for wounded soldiers and civilian blast victims at Dnipro’s Mechnikov Hospital, just a hundred kilometers from the frontlines.

Valentina Lisnycha, in surgical scrubs, at Ukraine's Mechnikov Hospital in Dnipro, an operating theater is seen behind glass, where three doctors are at work
Valentina Lisnycha says one cannot describe the horror she sees treating war wounded every day Image: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

"It's like we just all of a sudden found ourselves in this horror film and we can't get out. It's become our life. It's not something you can describe in words, you have to see it with your own eyes," says Valentyna Lisnycha, who cares for some of the most critically ill patients that the war in Ukraine has produced.

Lisnycha heads a trauma unit that treats patients with infected wounds at Dnipro's Mechnikov Hospital. Most are soldiers from the nearby battlefields of southern and eastern Ukraine but frequent Russian missile strikes mean civilian victims are common, too.

It's early morning in the ward. Surgeons and anesthetists crowd around their patients. The vast majority are soldiers, their injuries were caused by bullets, shells and falling debris. Most of the men can barely move, hooked up as they are to IV drips and monitors. 

A doctor stops to hold a soldier's hand for a few moments. He responds with a barely perceptible smile. Next to another bed, a nurse is trying to make out what kind of sweets her patient wants. She promises to make his wish come true and rushes to finish her tasks. Patients' relatives are already at the ward, waiting outside for visiting hours to start. 

Nurses and doctors at the bedside of an injured man at Mechnikov Hospital in Dnipro, Ukraine
Frontline soldiers and injured civilians are all treated in the Mechnikov Hospital trauma wardImage: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

The 'survival factory'

Fourteen operations are scheduled for the day, not counting any emergencies that might be rushed in. The doctors here call their hospital a "survival factory." Wounded soldiers come to Mechnikov after initial treatment at so-called stabilization points just behind the frontlines. Here in Dnipro, patients undergo surgery before being transferred to make space for the next influx of patients.

Today it's Andriy's turn to leave Mechnikov. As the ambulance crew carefully puts him on a stretcher, he doesn't so much as ask where he's going. "This lad came to us unconscious," Valentyna explains. "Now at least he's talking again." Andriy has trouble hearing and every word is a struggle. "I just want to go home to my wife and kids," he says slowly.

A team of doctors operating on two injured patients at Mechnikov Hospital in Dnipro, Ukraine
The days are long in Mechnikov's operating rooms and new patients arrive every night Image: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

Long days and nights in the operating theater

It's time for Valentyna to make her way to the operating theater, which she will not be able to leave before late evening. Her next patient is Nikita, an infantry soldier. He's about to undergo the first of of several procedures on his rib cage. "They shot straight through my lungs," Nikita tells us from the operating table. "The bullet went straight through my body armor."

A few meters away, Vitaliy is also waiting to be operated upon. "First the shells come in, then drones drop grenades on you and then finally they send the kamikaze drones your way..." Those are just some of the Russian weapons Vitaliy had to hide from in his narrow trench on the front. Vitaliy remembers hearing a kamikaze drone flying his way. He had just enough time to curl up in a ball before it exploded, injuring his backside. Today, surgeons will try to rebuild his muscles.

Patient number 24,356

The day's operations have gone well but Valentyna's shift is far from over. She will be on call all night, and If needed, she'll be back in the operating room. Evenings are the busiest time for new admissions from the frontlines. An ambulance pulls up outside the hospital. Paramedics bring in a uniformed man on a stretcher. He's unconscious and covered in burns.

Another soldier comes in. The hospital staff have written a number on the back of his hand: twenty-four thousand, three hundred and fifty-six. The staff here began their count on the first day of the full-scale invasion. And this is just one of several big hospitals treating battlefield casualties.

A hand with the number 24,356 is seen resting on a leg in camoflauge pants with parts of a wheelchair visible at Mechnikov Hospital in Dnipro, Ukraine
Staff at Mechnikov Hospital have been numbering incoming patients since the war beganImage: Hanna Sokolova-Stekh/DW

Burned out medics

"All of us are burned out," says Valentyna, "but we understand that others are suffering more." In spite of the strains, few of the doctors here have left since war began. Almost all of them have close relatives fighting on the frontlines.

"We stopped asking our patients how they were injured," Valentyna admits. "It's not that we don't care. But you have to keep some distance from it all. It's not cynicism, its self-protection.'"

This article was translated from Ukrainian.

It is part of the Towards Equalityprogram, a collaborative alliance of 16 international news outlets highlighting the challenges and solutions to reach gender equality, which is led by Sparknews.