The war in Ukraine ends in Zaragoza

With pale eyes and a little drooping, Ukrainian Oleksander, a 58-year-old paramedic wounded at the front, watches as two physiotherapists bandage the stumps that dangle where his legs used to be.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
18 March 2023 Saturday 22:55
12 Reads
The war in Ukraine ends in Zaragoza

With pale eyes and a little drooping, Ukrainian Oleksander, a 58-year-old paramedic wounded at the front, watches as two physiotherapists bandage the stumps that dangle where his legs used to be. “You have golden hands”, he whispers to them spontaneously. The sanitary, through translator, thank him and continue with his task. If all goes well, in a few months he will return home with two prostheses to continue collaborating in the fight against the Russians. "And to marry my girlfriend!" He points out between laughs.

His case, which also includes four amputated fingers on his right hand, is one of the most delicate of the latest contingent of Ukrainian war wounded who arrived at the Zaragoza Defense Hospital. Since the start of the invasion, 53 patients have arrived here in different batches, of which 25 have already been discharged. Disfigured faces, trunks without limbs, torn muscles... the display of the horrors of war coexists in the north wing of the third floor.

General Juan Antonio Lara, 58, does everything possible to offer them the best possible care. In charge of the hospital since 2020, he says that they select the interns from a list sent to them by the Ukrainian Ministry of Health. Ruled out as hemiplegics or tetraplegics (they do not have the means) and wounded by a clean bullet (too simple), they opt for those affected by the shock wave of an explosion. “More complex” cases that require the attention of different specialists and various interventions.

Those chosen travel from the border with Poland in a medicalized A400 plane to the Torrejón de Ardoz base (Madrid), and from there by ambulance to Zaragoza. From that moment, a hard process begins that lasts months. The otorhinolaryngologist treats possible eardrum perforations. The ophthalmologist makes sure that there are no shrapnel fragments in the eye. Some pass through the hands of the maxillofacial or plastic surgeon. "But the one who takes the cake is the traumatologist," stresses Lara.

Most enter the operating room between four and six times. The first is usually to break again a bone that has healed badly after having undergone an emergency cure. Then comes the recomposition and, in the cases of amputations, the taking of measures and the implantation of prostheses. In the end, rehabilitation and return home.

“When they arrive they always say that they want to heal as soon as possible to continue fighting,” says Lara. This is the case of Denis, one of the most complicated admissions they have had. No nose, with a sunken malar and shoulder wounds, he was treated for months before he was able to return to the front. “Victoria Simón, head of maxillofacial at the Miguel Servet hospital (Zaragoza), operated on him. Ukrainian doctors say that he has made her a work of art, ”Lara notes proudly.

The rehabilitation room is a key station in the entire process. There is Oleksander, the paramedic who was helping to rescue the wounded from the Donetsk front when a missile blew off his legs in August. "When I left the shelter, a ball of fire engulfed me," he recalls of that moment. This man never thought that he would end up facing the neighboring country, where he served in the military and had good friends. "I had," he stresses. A few days ago, he underwent a pharmacological stress test to confirm that he is fit to wear the bioelectric prostheses as they plan to implant him. "He saw himself reborn when he arrived in Zaragoza, but now the really hard part begins," confirms Lara.

In that same room is Igor, a 57-year-old railway worker who lost an arm in an attack. In Zaragoza since October, his case is complicated since his small stump makes it difficult to install the prosthesis. Even so, his recovery progresses thanks to his effort and good physical condition, which he demonstrates by doing push-ups with one arm. Or Dmytro, a 34-year-old former laborer who is being massaged for a leg eaten away by shrapnel in October. The uncertainty about his condition weighs on him, and he doesn't want to talk about plans for the future until he knows his exact situation.

That is where the work of the center's psychiatry and psychology team comes into play. Many patients arrive with post-traumatic stress, insomnia... In these cases, technology plays a contradictory role. On the one hand, it reassures them to be in contact with their loved ones and lightens idle hours. But on the other, it condemns them to continue the war minute by minute, an inexhaustible source of anxiety and nerves.

Here the role of Alina, interpreter and head of the Ukrainian Association of Residents in Aragon (AURA), whose team acts as a liaison between medical staff, the administration and patients, shines with its own light.

Alina is an all-rounder. Translates the instructions of the physiotherapists and nurses. She attends to patient requests, from changing the date of a report to getting new pants. She schedules activities to entertain them, like a visit to the aquarium or a concert downtown. It raises funds to send material to Ukraine (there are already 19 trucks with 18 tons each). And when he can, he helps to bring the relatives of the sick

This is what he did with Sasha, a 38-year-old worker seriously injured in one leg, who was accompanied in October by his wife and children, between the ages of 9 and 13. "For him they are a great support, although they want to return as soon as possible," Alina slips while her wounds are being treated. The seriousness of his wife, sitting in a nearby armchair, contrasts with the good atmosphere in the next room, where two other wounded men, both named Yuri, drink coffee and play cards on the bed. "Better if we could go to the bar!" they joke.

Looking to the future, Lara hopes that the temporary program that makes her arrival possible will continue for the next few years. To do this, they have just reinforced their staff by hiring 21 new workers, including five doctors, six nurses and two physiotherapists. “This will allow us to bring more people and the rehabilitation room is open two shifts for all patients,” she concludes.