The Russian invasion in Ukraine has reached a grim milestone. According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 100 attacks on healthcare facilities and emergency transport vehicles since the war started.
Even though Russian forces have pulled back from the capital city of Kyiv, doctors and nurses in the country say they have become the target of Russian shelling attacks as the war takes a dangerous new turn.
“Hanging on by Our Fingernails”
Vladyslav Kukhar, a surgeon and director of the City Hospital No. 2 in Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine, remembers the day his facility was attacked. Multiple shells exploded nearby and one detonated inside.
“These explosions, it all seemed so unreal,” Kukhar said. “We realized that we were the target.”
He said the emergency department on the ground floor was instantly destroyed. The blast shattered all the windows on the nine-story building, leaving patients and equipment coated in broken glass. Beds spun around while doors blew off their hinges.
“It was like an apocalypse,” he remembered. “There was a white fog of cement and dust in the building, in the hallways and rooms. There were alarms sounding. The screams of patients … the medical personnel.”
Kukhar and his team quickly assessed the damage, despite the shock of what had just happened.
“We were trying to find all the wounded to prioritize them,” he said, “to render them necessary aid” — including sedatives.
Dr. Tetiana Lebedieva, deputy director of the Chernihiv Health Department, stepped in to document all the assaults on healthcare facilities in her city.
“It was a very, very difficult emotional moment,” she recalled. “My job requires me to drive around the city and check every hospital.”
The hospital was known as one of the best in the nation, but everything they built was gone in the blink of an eye.
“The decision was taken very quickly to move all the patients who were able to walk, to move them to the underground floors,” which had sustained less damage from the shelling, said Lebedieva. They also had to move patients into the hallways because the rooms didn’t have windows to block the cold air.
“Everyone was very scared,” Lebedieva added. “The patients — everything that has been done to help them to live their life longer is being destroyed in seconds or minutes. It’s such a pain in your heart and hopelessness in your soul.”
Russian attacks on the region have continued in the weeks since. All seven municipal hospitals in Chernihiv have been damaged and only three are partially open, including City Hospital No. 2. Every private clinic in the city has closed due to the conflict and residents fleeing the country.
Dennis Matsko used to oversee a multidrug resistant tuberculosis ward in Chernihiv until it was destroyed earlier this month. He’s now working out of the district hospital and says, “We are hanging on by our fingernails.”
The staff at the City Hospital No. 2 tried to repair the facility as best they could, but they had to make do with whatever they could find. It took them four days to cover the windows with tarps and plywood. They also moved all their operations to the ground floor where they created a triage center for severely wounded patients.
“There was no alternative,” Kukhar explained. “We were there to help under any circumstances. That’s what we did. That’s what we had to do. Fate has made this choice for us.”
The WHO condemned the attacks on Ukrainian healthcare facilities and accused Russia of violating international humanitarian law. The organization estimates that around 73 people have been killed and 51 injured, including health workers and patients, in the attacks.
“We are outraged that attacks on health care are continuing,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Peace is the only way forward. I again call on the Russian Federation to stop the war.”
Tedros also outlined the various ways the international community is working to keep the country’s “health system running.” This includes delivering 180 metric tons of medical supplies to the hardest-hit areas of the country and expanding access to healthcare for refugees in neighboring countries.