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‘A new life’: Ukrainian war amputees travel to Germany for custom-made limbs

Berlin CNN —
Pavlo Kushnirov was among the Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the eastern city of Bakhmut with the 114th territorial defense brigade on a sunny day last winter when Russian shelling changed his life forever.
“For two days our unit was under heavy bombardment from Russian artillery and drones. That morning – on 5 December – the shells found me,” the 43-year-old bearded soldier, who now uses a wheelchair, told CNN in Berlin, as he pointed to where his legs should be. Instead, there are two stumps: One of his legs is amputated just below the knee joint, the other is amputated above the knee.
Fellow Ukrainian soldier Vitaliy Sayko-Kazakov, 42, served in the 19th Separate Rifle Battalion in Chervonopopivka, on the front line where Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions meet. His left leg was torn off during a battle with Russian forces on July 1 last year. “I immediately put a tourniquet on myself and luckily remained conscious. On adrenaline, I guess, I saved myself,” he said. His right leg sustained serious injuries with an open fracture and eventually had to be amputated in Lviv, he told CNN earlier this month in Berlin. For three months he was confined to his hospital bed.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has killed tens of thousands and left even more with lost limbs and other life-altering injuries since the full-scale invasion began in February 2022. German officials estimate there are between 30,000 and 50,000 Ukrainian amputees as a result of the conflict.
Obtaining adequate prosthetic limbs and care is tough inside Ukraine. Now a German non-governmental organization is working to bring wounded Ukrainian soldiers to Berlin so they can be fitted with custom-made artificial limbs and given treatment that will allow them to lead as normal a life as possible.
Kushnirov and Sayko-Kazakov are among the first of 60 severely wounded Ukrainian soldiers who will receive treatment in Germany, thanks to the Berlin-based NGO “Life Bridge Ukraine.” They hope to start what they see as a new life soon. “My doctor called and said there was an opportunity to go abroad for me to receive prosthetics. So, I said OK,” Vitaliy said. “Once there were hundreds of us, now there are thousands of people like me.”
Orthopedic technicians work with Vitaliy Sayko-Kazakov, seated center, and Pavlo Kushnirov, right, who are among the first of 60 injured Ukrainian soldiers who will receive specialist treatment in Berlin.
Limbs amputated quickly to save lives
Marko Gänsl, from German health care company Seeger, is among five orthopedic technicians in Berlin who build custom-made prostheses for the soldiers. When CNN visited the wounded soldiers in their accommodation center for the first time, Gänsl was assessing the new patients.
Bending over Kushnirov’s leg stumps, he softly felt along them. “Are you in pain?” he asked. Kushnirov shook his head as a translator relayed the question. “Let me know if anything hurts,” Gänsl said, taking out a tape to measure the stumps. He and other orthopedic technicians assessed the condition of Kushnirov’s limbs.
Battlefield conditions in Ukraine mean limbs must often be amputated quickly to save soldiers’ lives. “The severity of the amputations often leave the survivors with stumps that won’t allow for the fitting of regular-sized prosthetics,” said Gänsl. “And of course we are dealing here with completely different requirements (than what orthopedic technicians are used to in Germany).”
It will be relatively easy to provide a prosthesis for Kushnirov’s right leg, Gänsl said. However, his left leg will be more difficult to treat because it was amputated above the knee.
Pavlo Kushnirov, left, is seen while serving in the Ukrainian military before losing his legs in a Russian attack last December. Pavlo Kushnirov
Gänsl moved on to inspect the next patient: 27-year-old Valerii Omelchenko, who was drafted into the war three months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “I was on duty defending my country on November 23 last year when a Russian drone flew over me and a grenade exploded right in front of me,” he told CNN.
“I jumped away and pulled my legs into my chest to protect myself from the explosion which I knew was coming. But look at my legs, they are injured badly.”
Sitting in a wheelchair with his left leg amputated and the other one badly bruised and shattered, Omelchenko added: “But at least I am still alive.”
Keen to save his damaged leg, doctors in Germany kept it in a metal frame, or external fixator, at first while it healed. That has just been removed and he will be fitted with a prosthesis on the other leg soon.
Valerii Omelchenko, pictured during his time serving in the Donetsk area of Ukraine, was badly injured by a Russian grenade in November. Valerii Omelchenko
A bridge between two capitals
Janine von Wolfersdorff, a Berlin-based financial expert who became involved in humanitarian aid work in Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion, is the initiator of Life Bridge Ukraine, a project which is being run in partnership between the German and Ukrainian capitals. Under its auspices, experts in workshops in Berlin will make new limbs and teach the 60 patients chosen for treatment how to walk and move again.
Von Wolfersdorff traveled to Ukraine herself with a medical team to assess some of the most seriously injured soldiers. “It’s a challenge to find the right patients in Ukraine. There are so many complex cases. At the same time, there are too few orthopedic technicians in Ukraine to provide all war victims with fast, adequate and good care,” she told CNN.
“We want to give Ukrainian war-wounded soldiers a new life – and simultaneously want to train six Ukrainians for three months here in Berlin, who will learn to build very good quality prosthetics so that they can do it themselves in Kyiv.”
Von Wolfersdorff is collaborating closely with Kyiv’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko and Berlin’s Governing Mayor Kai Wegner on the project, hoping that a prosthetics center will be opened in Kyiv later this year. Ultimately, her group wants to open further prosthetics centres in other Ukrainian cities as well. “The trainees learn here first-hand when a stump may need another amputation, another surgery, when a scar needs to be attended to again, and other issues that arise during this very complex process,” Von Wolfersdorff said.
Orthopedic technician Marko Gänsl examines Valerii Omelchenko for a prosthetic fitting on his left leg. His right leg was kept in a metal frame while it healed. Chris Stern/CNN
CNN met with Ukrainian trainee Volodymyr Havrylov in the Seeger workshop. “It takes time to train to do it correctly and get every detail right,” he said. In the past few weeks, he has learnt that “surgeons need to make a good stump. The better the stump is, the easier for us to make a stump receiver.” Each patient requires a different treatment, Havrylov said, explaining that “sometimes the limb is too short, sometimes it is long – sometimes there is not enough space for the fitting. Sometimes patients still have pain somewhere.” Oftentimes there are other medical conditions that could influence the fitting of prosthetic limbs.
Havrylov said he wants to learn “as much as possible from the Germans and maybe even get better at it so that we can open our center in Kyiv and help there. Unfortunately, there will be more people with injuries. We need good workshops to provide our Ukrainians with a good life. We need to bring them back into society.”
Life Bridge Ukraine has collected around $600,000 in donations for the project, including for the care of the soldiers in Berlin. “It is a long process of recuperation,” Von Wolfersdorff said. “We seek a holistic treatment approach: In addition to a lot of physiotherapy, patients are offered psychological help, as well as nutritional advice, to reintegrate themselves into as normal as possible a life.”
‘Completely new way of learning to walk’
A few weeks later, CNN joined Kushnirov and Sayko-Kazakov for their first fittings in Seeger’s Berlin workshop. Vitaliy looked at his new artificial limbs and smiled. “These are my two legs,” he said, pointing at his new prosthetic limbs. “One and two. We are going to fit them today.”
With the help of the medical and orthopedic technician teams Sayko-Kazakov took his first steps using them. “These are cool feet. Really fine work.”
For Kushnirov, the initial fitting was trickier because of the artificial knee joint on one limb. “Unfortunately walking will be more difficult for him,” Gänsl explained. “It is a completely new way of learning how to walk.”
Kushnirov knows his rehabilitation process will take time, but he is determined to keep trying. “It’s a shame I am losing so much time getting rehabilitated and I know it will still take me a lot of time. But of course, my life will improve,” he said. “But it’s hard to say what life will be like after my prosthetics fittings. I know it will be different.”
Vitaliy Sayko-Kazakov intends to help the war effort however he can when he returns to Ukraine.

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