At Israeli Hospitals, Victims of Ukraine Conflict Find Themselves in Experienced Hands

Artem Zapototskyi, shot at a 'peaceful demonstration' in Kiev, is one of 10 Ukrainians who were airlifted to Israel for treatment.

At first, he thought he’d been hit by rubber bullets. But after Artem Zapototskyi was taken to a nearby hospital in Kiev, doctors determined his injuries were caused by live ammunition. One bullet went straight through his body, tearing through his spine before piercing his lung on its way out. The other is still lodged somewhere in his shoulder.

The 34-year-old attorney had been participating in what he described as a “peaceful demonstration” on February 20 on Instituskaya Street, right near Maidan Square, when he was hit by a sniper’s bullets. After eight days in intensive care followed by a week in a regular ward, his condition progressively worsening. Last weekend he was airlifted to Israel and admitted to Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem.

Zapototskyi is one of 10 Ukrainians, all casualties of the raging violence in their country, being treated in Israeli hospitals. Eight are at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot. Because of the complexity of their injuries, Zapototskyi and Oleksandr Huch, who now share a hospital room, were admitted to Hadassah. They and seven other wounded Ukrainians arrived late on Friday, on a special flight chartered from Kiev. The 10th came on his own, two days earlier. Only one of the 10, a 17-year-old orphan, is Jewish.

So why were they brought to Israel, of all places? “Israel has a lot of experience in treating people with wounds like these, especially gunshot wounds,” explains Olena Ivanchuk, the media liaison at the Ukrainian Embassy in Tel Aviv. Several countries that were approached, including Germany and Austria, she says, declined on the grounds that their hospitals were not equipped to deal with such injuries.

Zapotoskyi, who has not yet recovered sensation in his legs due to the injury to his spine, is confined to his hospital bed. Pale and still visibly shaken from his ordeal, Zapototskyi tears up often as he tells his story. “I took a holiday from work to travel to Kiev,” he recounts through a translator, “but I’m not a political activist and I don’t belong to any party. I just thought it was my civic duty to have my voice heard.” It was on his third day in Kiev that he was shot.

Married with two young children, Zapototskyi hails from the western Ukrainian town of Lutsk. He hasn’t seen his wife or children since he was wounded, and as he swipes through photos of his children on his cellphone he begins to tear up again. The only familiar face nearby is that of his almost identical-looking younger brother, Vitaly, who accompanied him to Israel and has barely been out of his sight since their arrival.

Dr. Leon Kaplan, the Russian-born director of Hadassah’s spinal surgery unit, is treating Zapototskyi, and the two men communicate in their native language. The steady flow of visitors to the room includes a group of Israeli volunteers, many of them Russian-speakers. They see to a constant supply of treats, such as a tray piled high with Israeli candy bars and other sweets, as well as sitting at Zapototskyi’s bedside and doing all they can to distract him from his homesickness and his physical discomfort.

A different group of volunteers, this one from Ukraine, made it possible for Zapototskyi and the others to find treatment in Israel. It includes people such as Natasha Sokolova, who flew with the patients on Friday and is at Zapototskyi’s side today as well.

Using Facebook and other social media, these volunteers reached out to hospitals around the world, begging them to take in their country’s injured. They negotiated prices for flights and medical care, gathered passports and other necessary documents and, most important, raised money to cover the $150,000 in costs involved. A big chunk of this sum was put up by a Ukrainian donor who requested anonymity, reveals Sokolova. Local Jewish families contributed $60,000 to a fundraising effort coordinated by Alexander Levin, head of the Jewish community in Kiev, and Rabbi Moshe Azman, Ukraine’s chief Chabad rabbi.

Much more money will probably be required, though, since quite a few of the injured, including Zapototskyi and Huch at Hadassah, will need months of rehabilitation in Israel, as prescribed by their doctors, before they are well enough to return home.

Huch, like his temporary hospital roommate Zapototskyi, says he was never much of a political activist but somehow felt compelled to make the trip from his tiny village in the Volyn region of northwestern Ukraine to express what he describes as his “solidarity” with the anti-government demonstrators. Coincidentally, the 27-year-old, movie-star handsome physical education instructor and Zapototskyi were shot in Kiev on the same street, on the same day. “I recognize the face of someone from my village there who was shot, and I ran to help him,” Huch recounts. “As I was trying to drag him away, I got shot in the thigh. I was lucky because the bullet was just two centimeters away from a main artery.”

His wound was so nasty that doctors in the nearby hospital were inclined to amputate his leg. Fortunately, Sokolova was in the hospital at the time and persuaded them to wait. “That’s why it was so important for me to find him another hospital where he could get proper treatment,” she says, squeezing Huch’s arm affectionately. “There were about 20 women around there then, and each one came up to me and said, ‘I’m [Huch’s] fiancée – please, you have to take him to Israel.’”

Huch’s physician at Hadassah is Dr. Amal Khoury, an Israeli Arab and one of the country’s leading orthopedic trauma surgeons. Huch needs surgery soon, but first his infected gunshot wound must heal. Huch, who gets a kick out of shocking his visitors by displaying his wound, is on serious antibiotics.

Like Zapototskyi, he keeps in touch with family back home via Skype and is thrilled to report that his mother, a hospital nurse, has just received permission to take time from work to visit him. How does he like being in Israel? Huch responds with a thumbs-up. “I like the girls here,” he says.

Michal Fattal
Michal Fattal