Evheniia Ukhvatova comes from long line of nezlamni people, which means “unbreakable” in Ukrainian.
Her grandfather volunteered to join the battle against Russia. Her uncles work in territorial defense. And her great-grandmother, Valentina Ukhvatova, 75, of Dnipro is an aerospace engineer who refuses to give up on a free Ukraine or on Evheniia.
“We will handle this,” Ukhvatova said. “Glory to the heroes! Having children like Evheniia, we can do anything.”
The little girl with brown hair and curious brown eyes fell face down as she fled a house fire on Sept. 4, 2020, Ukhvatova said. The backs of her feet and legs were severely burned. Her heart and kidneys also were affected.
Ukrainian doctors unable to help these children amid war
As she grows, Evheniia’s scarred skin isn’t stretching with her, causing painful and disabling contractures that make it difficult for her to walk.
As her country fights for autonomy from invading Russian forces, the Ukrainian medical system can’t provide plastic and reconstructive surgery for children like Evheniia. Their focus now is keeping people with critical injuries alive.
Seeing the need, a team of U.S. doctors traveled to Poland last week and evacuated 17 Ukrainian children from the war-torn country for cosmetic and reconstructive surgery at a Polish hospital as part of a historic mission. Three other children who are living as refugees in Poland and the Netherlands also were brought for treatment to a hospital in Leczna, near Poland’s eastern border.
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Evheniia’s great-grandmother accompanied her because the child’s mom is caring for her four other kids at home. “I believed in myself that I could do that, help her and put her on her feet,” Ukhvatova said.
A daughter of Ukraine faces surgery
The small girl looked frightened as she was wheeled on a stretcher May 15 into the third-floor operating room at the Independent Public Health Care Facility. Then her eyes met a familiar face, and her demeanor changed.
“That’s my patient!” declared Dr. Artem Posunko, a plastic surgeon from the Regional Medical Center of Family Health in Dnipro; he was among the Ukrainian physicians traveling with the families.
In that moment, it was if he claimed Evheniia, 6, not only as his patient, but as a daughter of Ukraine; his presence seemed to calm her.
Posunko stood by while Dr. Justin Knittel, an anesthesiologist from Washington University in St. Louis, and Whitney Roberts, a certified nurse anesthetist from Boston Children’s Hospital, worked to sedate Evheniia.
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Soon after, a team of plastic surgeons — led by Dr. David Brown from the University of Michigan and assisted by U-M chief resident Dr. Gina Sacks as well as Posunko and a Polish doctor — began cutting healthy skin from Evheniia’s back to graft onto her scarred legs.
She had laser treatment, too, which breaks down and thins scar tissue, leaving more flexible skin with a better texture.
A couple of hours later, Ukhvatova waited for her in the recovery room. As the anesthesia wore off, Evheniia cried and thrashed in her bed.
‘You can’t even imagine! She walks!’
“I have to be strong,” Ukhvatova said, maintaining her composure. “I can’t complain, cry or be emotional. Evheniia deserves to see me strong, confident, smiling.”
By the next morning, Evheniia, too, was smiling as she sat on the edge of her hospital bed; Ukhvatova spooned oatmeal into her mouth.
And the day after that: “You can’t even imagine! She walks!” Ukhvatova said. “Within a month, she should start rehabilitation. We will continue to heal in Dnipro.”
Even though Ukhvatova believes it’s dangerous to continue living in Dnipro during the ongoing war — just Monday, Reuters reported an air strike in the region destroyed several buildings and injured eight people — she isn’t willing to flee.
“I have children, grandchildren and eight small great-grandchildren,” she said. “I can’t leave them behind.”
Instead, Ukhvatova stays, and she fights in any way she can. Last week, it was for Evheniia.
“I would like to thank everyone who supports us, and helps us in a moral, emotional, physical way, and sends weapons. … I am grateful that American surgeons came here.”
Zuza Nikitorowicz translated interviews for this story.