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Treating injured Ukrainian civilians, I saw the horror and the hope

The streets outside the hospital are riddled with ammunition craters. The windows are covered with plywood. The hallways are packed with patients because in their rooms they would be vulnerable to bomb blasts and shards of glass.

I am an American surgeon who recently volunteered for three weeks at four hospitals in Ukraine. I have experience in war surgery working in Syria and wanted to serve with Ukrainian doctors.

The wounds I saw in Ukraine resembled those in Syria. There were obliterated faces, disembowelled bellies, dismembered bodies, and chest wounds with collapsed lungs – all hallmarks of wounds from powerful ballistics.

The day before I arrived in Kharkiv, a market about 100 meters from the hospital had been attacked and 15 people needed treatment. Five operations. Two dead. One of the victims was a 65-year-old nurse who had finished her night shift and was spending the morning with her 2-year-old grandson. The explosion fractured his left leg and destroyed his right. She had tourniquets on both legs, but died in the operating room. Her grandson died a few days later. The day I left, the hospital was again damaged by shelling.

At a hospital in the northern town of Brovary, I met a 60-year-old woman with metastatic lung cancer. As Russian forces occupied her village, she fell and fractured her spine, leaving her legs paralyzed. She and her husband waited for weeks in their basement until the village was liberated. She has had surgery, is recovering and needs chemotherapy and radiation. She has regained some function in her legs, but it is unclear if she will walk again.

In Brovary, we treated a 30-year-old woman from the same region. Explosives had ripped skin and muscle from his arm and exposed a fractured bone in his forearm. She had cleaned and bandaged the limb herself in her basement, she said, because the fighting was intense and she could not leave the house with Russian forces outside. Doctors are still working to save his arm.

In Kyiv, I remember a 17-year-old girl spending time in the hospital with her parents watching “Bridgerton.” Although a bomb attack seriously injured her, she still managed to smile from time to time. She underwent almost daily operations and dressing changes for a fractured left leg and an amputated right leg. The wound on the right side cannot be closed until an infection has healed. Then, she can start her long rehabilitation with a prosthesis, if she has one. She just wants to walk again.

This teenager reminded me of a group of orphans I met in Aleppo, loud and vigorous despite their living conditions. But one girl among them always sat alone and didn’t talk to anyone. She avoided eye contact and only nicked her food. Her friends said she had been like this since they knew her. It is overwhelming to see a child scarred by violence and trauma. These wounds cannot be repaired surgically with a scalpel.

In Ukraine, it is easy to be overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness. But I have also seen people carry on with courage and compassion. Civil servants bravely cleaned the streets and managed public transport. Railway workers handed out blankets and helped passengers through the crowds to the train platforms. A barista showed up outside the hospital daily to operate his coffee cart. Volunteer paramedics risked their lives to rescue the injured from the front lines.

Whether it’s an underground clinic in Aleppo, a destroyed hospital in Kharkiv, or an emergency room in Chicago, all we have is each other. When people ask me what I saw in Syria and Ukraine, other than the horrors of war, that’s what I want people to remember.

Dr. Attar is an Associate Professor of Surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a volunteer with the Syrian-American Medical Society.

Journal editorial report: The best and worst of the week from Kim Strassel, Mene Ukueberuwa, Mary O’Grady and Kyle Peterson. Images: Ukrainian Presidency/Zuma Press/Picture Alliance/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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