Fighting to protect their patients: How health workers at 3 Ukrainian hospitals adapted to wartime work

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“We haven’t lost hope, we don’t give up, we support each other.”

The war in Ukraine forced Ukrainian health workers to adopt new roles and ways of working and to use their ingenuity and dedication to protect and care for their patients.

Olha, an infectious disease specialist, returned after treating patients in COVID-19 disease hotspots at a health facility in central Ukraine.

It was the fate of a young man caught in shock waves that convinced her to give up her private practice and devote herself to those who need her most. “He stayed in the woods for about 3 days. After being brought in, he did not speak for 3 more, hiding in his hospital bed with a blanket over his head. We performed an electrocardiogram, which showed that the young man had had a heart attack. The cardiologists couldn’t believe the diagnosis, repeating ‘How is this possible? He’s only 22 years old.

When Olha advertised her services as an infectious disease specialist on social media, she began receiving up to 150 messages a day for diagnosis and treatment advice for a range of illnesses. Some of those who contacted her have already fled their homes and settled in central Ukraine, but others are still based in places hard hit by hostilities and cut off from health services. She helps them, in person and remotely, by interviewing them on the phone and referring them to other specialists when possible.

“We have many displaced people coming to the hospital, who fled from places like Mariupol, Kharkiv and Chernihiv. I do my best to help them, whatever their condition. The most common cases I see are young children. In bomb shelters, people breathe in fungal spores and if they have chronic illnesses, these often get worse. Sometimes they arrive with prolonged illnesses, such as pneumonia, kidney infections, and severe allergic reactions. I accept everyone.”

Lidiya is the chief operating officer of a hospital in kyiv. In peacetime, the hospital operated 18 outpatient clinics, but since the outbreak of hostilities all resources have been concentrated in the hospital. Although many personnel based in heavily bombed areas around Kyiv had to evacuate, a core workforce remained.

“We mainly treat people with regular illnesses, strokes and heart attacks and those requiring acute surgery. They are stabilized here and then evacuated elsewhere for intensive care and other scheduled operations. Adults and children were also taken abroad by voluntary organizations to be rehabilitated in Italy.

The shift to emergency work means some hospitals are no longer offering routine services, and those that do have seen a drop in demand.

“People now try as much as possible to get to shelters immediately when the air raid siren goes off, so attending routine consultations is extremely rare, although we have had cases in the past 2 weeks of people coming to us with children for planned vaccinations, because they are worried about their future health.

In order to provide ongoing medical services to people with chronic illnesses or new acute symptoms, a website has been created through which patients can connect with a doctor for advice. A discussion group, including many long-term patients who have since been transferred to other parts of Ukraine, was also created and currently has more than 35,000 members.

Despite the many challenges, hospital staff and volunteers work together and support each other morally. “The staff continue to hold the defense and work on it. Even some of the staff who left want to come back and get back to work,” says Lidiya.

Another hospital in kyiv treats adults and children with cardiovascular diseases and despite the Russian military offensive, the whole team stayed to continue providing round-the-clock care. They went from planned operations to 1 or 2 emergency operations per day.

“We all, as a team, went into emergency mode to be able to provide assistance if needed,” explains Andriy, anesthesiologist-resuscitator. “Because getting around the city is difficult, we decided to be here when needed – we almost live here now. Right now we have about 80% of the number of staff we had and we we are getting through this thanks to the help of so many organizations and volunteers.”

WHO support for doctors in Ukraine

WHO is working closely with the Ukrainian Ministry of Health and the authorities to identify gaps and needs in the country’s health system and respond quickly. The WHO opened an operations center in Poland, developed a pipeline of trauma supplies to many Ukrainian cities and sent more than 100 metric tons of medical equipment across the border to health facilities in across the country. To support beleaguered health workers in Ukraine, WHO is also working with partners to organize emergency medical teams and trauma management support.

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