Surgeons work with flashlights as Ukraine’s power grid goes down

KHERSON, Ukraine –

Dr Oleh Duda was in a particularly complex operation at a hospital in Lviv, Ukraine, when he heard an explosion nearby. After a while, the light went out.

Duda had no choice but to continue working with only one headlamp for light. The lights came back on three minutes later when the generator started up, but it felt like an eternity.

“These fateful minutes can cost patients their lives,” the oncology surgeon told The Associated Press.

The surgery on the patient’s main artery took place on November 15, when the city in western Ukraine lost power when Russia launched another salvo of rockets into the power grid, damaging nearly 50% of the energy facility. of the country.

The devastating strikes, which continued last week and once again plunged the country into darkness, strained and disrupted a healthcare system already ravaged by years of corruption, governance weak management, the COVID-19 pandemic and 9 months of war.

scheduled activities are being postponed; patient records are not available due to loss of internet connection; and medical staff had to use flashlights to check on patients in dark apartments.

The World Health Organization last week said Ukraine’s health system was facing “the darkest days of the war to date”, amid a growing energy crisis, winter weather. The cold begins and other challenges.

Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said: “This winter will threaten the lives of millions of people in Ukraine.

He predicts that another 2 million to 3 million people may leave their homes in search of warmth and safety and “will face unique health challenges, including respiratory infections”. respiratory diseases such as COVID-19, pneumonia and influenza”.

Last week, Kyiv’s Heart Institute posted on its Facebook page a video of surgeons operating on a child’s heart with the only light coming from a flashlight and battery-powered flashlight.

Dr Boris Todurov, director of the institute in the capital, said in the video: “Rejoice, Russian, a child is lying on a table and during the operation the lights went out completely.” “Now we’re going to turn on the generator — unfortunately, it’ll take a few minutes.”

Attacks have also hit hospitals and outpatient clinics in southeastern Ukraine. The WHO said in a statement last week that it had verified at least 703 attacks between February 24, when Russian troops entered Ukraine, and November 23.

The Kremlin has denied allegations that it targeted civilian facilities. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov again asserted last week that Russia only targeted sites “directly or indirectly related to military power”.

But just last week, an attack on the obstetrics department of a hospital in eastern Ukraine killed a newborn and seriously injured two doctors. In the northeastern region of Kharkiv, two people were killed after Russian forces shelled an outpatient clinic.

In Lviv, Duda said the explosions were so close to the hospital that “the walls shook” and doctors and patients had to go down to the bunker – something that happened every time the air raid sirens sounded.

The cancer hospital performed only 10 of the 40 surgeries scheduled for that day.

In the newly recaptured southern city of Kherson, without power after the Russians withdrew, the paralyzed elevators presented a real challenge for medical staff.

They had to carry immobile patients down the stairs of apartment buildings, then carry them back up to the operating room.

Across Kherson, where it started to get dark after 4 p.m. in late November, doctors were using floodlights, phone lights and flashlights. In some hospitals, the main equipment is no longer working.

Last Tuesday, Russian attacks on the southern city injured 13-year-old Artur Voblikov and doctors had to amputate his arm. Paramedics carried the boy through the dark stairs of a children’s hospital to the operating room on the sixth floor.

“The ventilator doesn’t work, the X-ray machine doesn’t work… There’s only one portable ultrasound machine and we have to carry it around constantly,” said Dr. Volodymyr Malishchuk, chief of surgery at a hospital. Children’s Hospital said. in Kherson.

The generator used by the children’s hospital broke down last week, leaving the facility without any form of electricity for several hours. Dr Olga Pilyarska, deputy head of the intensive care unit, said doctors were wrapping newborns in blankets because there was no heat.

Dr Maya Mendel, at the same hospital, said the lack of heat made surgery difficult for patients. “No one puts a patient on the operating table when the temperature is below zero,” she said.

Health Minister Viktor Liashko said on Friday that there are no plans to close any of the country’s hospitals, no matter how bad the situation, but the authorities will “optimize the use of space.” and accumulate everything needed in smaller areas” for heating. easier.

Liashko said that diesel or gas-powered generators have already been supplied to all Ukraine’s hospitals and that in the coming weeks an additional 1,100 generators sent by the country’s Western allies will also be delivered. transferred to hospitals. The minister said that currently, hospitals have enough fuel to last 7 days.

The minister added that additional backup generators are still needed. “Generators are designed to operate for short periods of time — three to four hours,” says Liashko, but power outages can last up to three days.

In the recently recaptured territories, the health system is reeling from months of Russian occupation.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russian forces of shutting down medical facilities in the Kherson region and looting medical equipment – even ambulances, “literally everything”.

Dr. Olha Kobevko, who has just returned from the recaptured Kherson areas after providing humanitarian aid there, echoed the president’s remarks in an interview.

“The Russians stole towels, blankets and bandages from medical facilities,” says Kobevko.

In Kiev, most hospitals are still operating normally, while part of the time depends on generators.

Meanwhile, private clinics and smaller dental clinics are having a hard time opening their doors to patients.

Dr Viktor Turakevich, a dentist in Kiev, said he had to reschedule appointments even if it was an emergency, because the power outage at his clinic lasted at least four hours a day and the generator he ordered It will take weeks to arrive.

“Every doctor has to answer the question of who they will admit first,” says Turakevich.

The power outage also made it difficult to access patient records online, and the Health Ministry’s system for storing all data was unavailable, said Kobevko, who works in the western city of Chernivtsy.

Duda, an oncology surgeon from Lviv, said that three doctors and several nurses from his hospital had left the hospital to treat Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines.

“The war has affected every doctor in Ukraine, whether in the west or the east, and the level of pain we face every day is difficult to measure,” Duda said.


Mednick reports from Kherson, Ukraine. Karmanau and Litvinova reported from Tallinn, Estonia

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