Paramedics at makeshift hospitals are the first line of care for soldiers injured in battles.
Over the past year and a half of war in Ukraine, most of the glory has gone to Ukraine’s soldiers resisting the Russian invasion in the trenches.
But just behind them is another collection of recruits who are no less crucial: the medics performing life-saving surgery just kilometres from the front lines.
In a village not far from Bakhmut, a group of a dozen Ukrainian surgeons and paramedics sit in a makeshift local hospital. These “stabilization points” are the first line of care for soldiers wounded in the battles to the east, where near-constant artillery fire can be heard.
“It’s been a quiet day so far,” said Oleh Tokarchuk, one of the medics. “It’s noon now, and we’ve only had six patients so far, most of them at dawn.”
As Tokarchuk speaks, a makeshift ambulance arrives from the front. A group of soldiers bellowing orders to prepare painkillers open the back and unload one of their comrades, lying on a stretcher. He’s still conscious, though the left side of his abdomen has been torn open by a deep shrapnel wound.
The medics load the man onto a hospital bed and get to work staunching the bleeding.
Their task here is to perform the most urgent care, treating any life-threatening injuries the best they can before the wounded can be transported to proper military hospitals in the cities of Donbas.
Ukraine offensive brings more casualties
Despite the man’s gruesome injury, his conditions are relatively stable — and just as importantly, the facility is not presently overwhelmed.
“We can work with up to 100 patients a day here normally,” said Tokarchuk, who has served at this position for six and a half months now. “Beyond that, it gets chaotic.”
He says the worst was during the fights to defend Soledar in January and February.
“We had 200 patients a day at some points.”
After a lull in May and June, casualties have recently picked up again. With Ukraine now on the offensive to the north and south of Bakhmut, Tokarchuk says it’s not uncommon for the stabilization point to receive 70 or 80 wounded a day.
For nearly four months now, Ukrainian forces have been carrying out a major counteroffensive against Russian forces entrenched in the country’s south and east.
Progress has been fitful against the well-fortified defenders: in Ukraine’s two main southern pushes, south of the towns of Orikhiv and Velyka Novosilka, advances have been measured in dozens of metres a day amid endless minefields and trench lines.
In the third direction, near Bakhmut, recent days have been more productive. On Sunday, Ukrainian forces raised their flag over the village of Andriivka, on Bakhmut’s southern flank.
Later that same day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that Ukrainian troops had liberated the neighbouring village of Klischiivka.
‘You never get used to this’
Lyuba is another medic at the stabilization point near Bakhmut.
Unlike Tokarchuk, who is a former municipal official, she is a trained paramedic and worked as one for eight years before the war. Like him, she has also served non-stop since March 2022.
“It takes about 30-40 minutes to take patients from here to Sloviansk,” Lyuba said. “That’s if we’re lucky — the road is terrible.”
The field hospital is close enough to the front that it regularly comes under Russian fire itself.
“Just yesterday, we came under GRAD shelling,” Lyuba said, referring to a type of rocket artillery and noting that a recent hit took place just five metres away.
“Even after more than a year of war, you never get used to this. You twitch every time you hear it.”
Another ambulance arrives from the front. Soldiers and medics lift two injured men out of the back on stretchers and bring them into the building, as more artillery booms in the distance.
One of the wounded soldiers, Andrei, says he and his comrade were injured while assaulting Russian positions near Soledar, north of Bakhmut.
“We took a trench from [the Russians] this morning, and they were counterattacking it,” Andrei said. “A group of them approached us, and one fired a rocket-propelled grenade. It caught both of us, but we forced them to retreat.”
Treating captured Russians
While most of their patients are Ukrainian soldiers, the medics have treated the occasional captured Russian as well.
“In May, we were brought one Russian soldier,” Lubya said. “His people abandoned him in a bunker and he was lying in no-man’s land for almost a week. It was amazing he was still alive. We managed to save him and despite all this, he was still speaking about the ‘Russian world.’ It was hard to believe.”
Another of Lyuba’s more memorable patients was an elderly pro-Russian local man — Ukrainians refer to them as “zhduny” or “those who are waiting” — part of the small but very real minority of Donbas civilians who are waiting for Russia to take control of the region because they believe it will benefit them.
“When he saw that everyone around him was speaking Ukrainian, he became hysterical. He was screaming that he won’t let us take his blood because banderovtsy will use it for experiments,” she said, using a Russian term for ultranationalist Ukrainians often used in Russian propaganda.
“Eventually he calmed down once he realized he would die without our help.”
Medics make do
The makeshift crew of paramedics at the stabilization point are fortunate enough to have a few medical professionals among their number.
One of them is Sergey Grigorenko, a 50-year-old assistant professor at Zaporizhzhia State Medical University, is one of them.
“I arrived here just two weeks ago,” Grigorenko said. “I haven’t been drafted — I’m still working at the university, but it’s the summer break for classes now, so I’m using my vacation time for a one-month rotation here.”
He says many of his students have done similar rotations, and a number of them are joining the war effort as volunteer medics, either upon graduation, on their summer breaks, or even taking time off their studies.
While he has adjusted to the realities of working in the field, Grigorenko says there are difficulties.
“In my normal job, I have a big operating room and all the tools I need,” he said. “Here, you have to make do.”
Last week, for example, he says they had a problem with a shortage of oxygen supplies. He believes they should also be changing location of the stabilization point much more often, at least once a month.
“But so many buildings are destroyed that it is hard to find somewhere suitable.”
Volunteer doctors risk their lives on Ukraine’s front line
CBC News shadows a group of volunteer medics helping treat casualties on the front line of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
‘Only together can we survive’
For Tokarchuk, it’s a sense of deep gratitude to the soldiers on the front that keeps him going.
“Medics do a very important job, but it’s nothing compared to what the guys in the trenches are doing,” he said.
While medics get to stay in a relatively safe position and don’t get shelled much, Tokarchuk says, the soldiers have taken up arms to defend everyone in Ukraine.
“So when one of them comes here and I have a possibility to save the life of this hero lying on the table … it’s an honour.”
Truly adapting to the conditions of war is nearly impossible, Lyuba admits. But she says it’s brought her and her comrades closer together and they do what they can to stay sane — drinking coffee, playing cards and staying in touch with their families.
“It’s very important to not close yourself off from other people due to the stress. Only together can we survive.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Neil Hauer is a Canadian freelance journalist reporting on the former Soviet Union, based in Yerevan, Armenia, but currently reporting from Ukraine. His work has been featured in CNN, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, Foreign Policy magazine and other outlets. He can be found on Twitter at @NeilPHauer, or contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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