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A U.S. limb clinic helps Ukrainians recover from the wounds of war
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The explosion came out of nowhere. One minute, 26-year-old Serhii Voronin was bumping across a Ukrainian farm field in the passenger seat of an off-road army vehicle, talking with his commander. The next, he was gazing down at bloody stumps where his legs used to be. The vehicle had rolled directly over a land mine meant for a tank, strategically placed by Russian forces in a war-ravaged district of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine.
“I thought about my family, because I was between life and death with no guarantee I would survive,” he told me through an interpreter. “I knew I had lost a lot of blood.”
Medics, scrambling from an unscathed vehicle behind Voronin’s, pulled him from the mangled truck, strapped him to a stretcher and rushed him to the hospital. He lost consciousness before heading into surgery.
Voronin can’t forget the terrible images from that rainy September afternoon. But today, on a sub-zero Minnesota winter morning, more than 5,000 miles from the front lines, he smiles as he surveys the scene around him from his wheelchair.
It’s about as far from the battlefield as he could get: clean and calm, no smell of explosives or sound of gunfire. But he’s still surrounded by soldiers. Seven other Ukrainians with missing limbs, most wearing army green and camouflage, sit nearby on black leather sofas and chairs, talking quietly, looking up expectantly, and occasionally laughing.
“I am thankful to God everything is OK,” Voronin says, his boyish cheeks flushing as he wraps his fingers around a cross hanging around his neck. “I am hardly injured.”
Hustling back and forth between Voronin and the other soldiers is the man they now look to for hope and healing: Yakov “Jacob” Gradinar, a former Ukrainian orthopedic surgeon who emigrated to Minnesota with his family in 2007. He began specializing in prostheses, developing innovations for frostbite victims and inventing a bent-knee prosthesis. Gradinar managed a Limb Lab clinic in Minneapolis and periodically brought amputees from war-ravaged African countries to be fitted with artificial limbs.
But when Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Gradinar and his family immediately began praying about how they could help their country.
Soon after, Gradinar met Yury Aroshidze, a Belarusian living in Minnesota who ran a trucking company. Together they realized God could use their combined talents in the Twin Cities to help wounded Ukrainians: Gradinar would primarily use his medical and prosthetic skills. Aroshidze would mastermind logistics. They named their organization the Protez Foundation. (Protez means “prosthetics” in Ukrainian.)
In Minneapolis, Aroshidze met a comedian friend of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy—himself once a comedian—and shared the idea for helping war amputees. The entertainer connected him with influencers in Ukraine who spread the word on social media.
Aroshidze and Gradinar recruited volunteers and donors to cover all the costs and got the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to help with visas, paperwork, and travel arrangements. Gradinar, who sprinkles conversations with Bible references, says cutting through bureaucratic red tape and finding the right people to help launch Protez made him feel like David against Goliath.
“I am not comparing myself to David, but am crediting God with working miracles when it seems impossible,” says Gradinar.
PROTEZ NOW OCCUPIES 5,000-PLUS square feet of prime real estate in Oakdale, a suburb of St. Paul. The site belongs to Slumberland Furniture, whose owners bought the multibuilding campus seven years ago for their headquarters. Back then, the Slumberland owners stood in the parking lot and prayed God would help them make room for causes that served Him. When they invited Protez to move in for well below market rental rates, Gradinar tried to thank them, but they waved him off. “You are an answer to our prayers,” they told him.
Gradinar welcomed the first group of amputees to Protez last July. This January, I watch him, his family and staff, and about 150 Ukrainian Americans greet the most recent group arriving at the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport.
Children and adults wrapped in blue-and-yellow flags gather near the international flight exit doors. They sing along to an exuberant accordion player’s repertoire of Ukrainian patriotic and folk songs. A traditionally dressed couple carries a wooden platter holding a round loaf of bread, ready for arriving soldiers to tear off a piece and dip into the adjacent bowl of salt—a Ukrainian custom for honored guests.
As soon as the security doors open, the baggage area erupts with cheering and applause. Eight amputees, most pushed in wheelchairs by flight attendants, roll in. At first, they look tired, but their faces light up with surprise when they see the crowd. One of the new arrivals is Serhii Voronin. As he wheels himself past Gradinar, the doctor reaches out and warmly grabs one of his hands in both of his. Voronin smiles.
Just a few hours later, Gradinar begins to measure the soldiers for their new limbs. The slim, dark-haired doctor kneels in front of Voronin to help him slip sock-like covers onto legs that now end just below the knee. He looks him in the eye and explains what he’ll be doing. The other soldiers stop talking to watch and listen. Most fidget nervously with crutches or jiggle their legs.
Wade Hallstrom, co-owner of the prosthetics manufacturing business Heidi’s Legs, waits nearby. He and his wife, Heidi, provide materials for Protez at cost and help fit the new limbs.
Techniques vary, but the process begins with a mold of the amputee’s limb in plaster of Paris. The mold is secured to a stand and then covered with thick plastic and carbon fiber that becomes the socket—the part that fits onto the residual limb. A small oven nearby heats the plastic to make it moldable. Pre-purchased titanium and stainless steel joints fasten onto the sockets.
Sanders, scissors, scrapers, and screwdrivers hang on one wall of Protez’s small lab, ready to use for correcting and improving the socket fit. A blowtorch for bigger adjustments sits on the workbench. Hallstrom says after soldiers get new prosthesis, he and Gradinar modify the alignment for the best balance and movement. Wearing a prosthesis causes limb muscles to atrophy, requiring periodic socket adjustments for months to alleviate rubbing and sore spots.
Usually, lower limb amputees get two types of prostheses for differing activity levels. One has a stable foot for walking. The other has a more flexible foot for sports. Amputees who lose arms also get two devices—one strictly mechanical, another more cosmetically natural-looking. Physical and occupational therapists help the patients adjust, doing gait training and rehearsing daily living activities.
“We usually take six months to a year to help amputees get fully accustomed to prosthetics, but these soldiers are here for only three weeks,” Hallstrom says. “They are super motivated—we actually have to tell them to slow down.”
A SERIES OF GRADUAL IMMIGRATION waves spanning more than a century has made Minneapolis home to a thriving Ukrainian community. In the 1880s, Ukrainians came here seeking work. Then geopolitical shifts, including the Russian Revolution, two world wars, and the Soviet collapse, continued the trend. Today, amid Russia’s war on their country, native Ukrainians know Minneapolis is a place they can find friends and maybe even family—not to mention shops selling traditional old country goods and cabbage rolls that remind them of home.
Such small comforts are welcome as the civilian casualty count in Ukraine now approaches 20,000, including nearly 12,000 wounded. Ukrainian military casualties reportedly number about 100,000, but that hasn’t been independently verified. And no one knows how many people have lost arms or legs.
After finishing with this group, Gradinar and his team will have fitted 41 soldiers and three civilians, including two children. The amputees learned about Protez online or through their doctors. Gradinar’s waiting list now numbers about 750. To apply, patients must not have a prosthesis yet, their wounds must be healed, and they must have a passport. Protez gives civilians priority.
Voronin and the other soldiers would eventually have been fitted with prostheses in Ukraine, but artificial limb technology in the United States is light-years ahead by comparison. That explains why these soldiers, though war-weary and uncertain of their futures, were willing to travel halfway around the world for an appointment with Gradinar.
After finishing with Voronin, the doctor works his way to other soldiers seated nearby. He starts measuring the legs of Valerii Kovalchuk, a lanky 25-year-old with a downward-curving mustache and trimmed beard. Unlike the others, he’s wearing a black and gray running suit from his soccer-playing days. He’s spent much of the afternoon adeptly maneuvering around the building on crutches and going outside to smoke.
Kovalchuk practices his English on me. “I realized I’d lost my foot when I saw it lying next to me,” he says.
Just 21 days after joining the army, Kovalchuk was hiking through a forest bringing water to his brigade when he stepped on a land mine. The explosion blasted him 6 feet into the air before he thudded to the ground.
Two faulty tourniquets ripped while he tried to stanch his own bleeding before medics arrived. He spent four months recovering, then one day his doctor announced he’d found someone to help. Aroshidze called from Protez shortly afterward, and within a week Kovalchuk was in Minnesota. Gradinar will be customizing his new left foot.
Across from Kovalchuk sits Volodymyr Glukhno. A stocky man with close-cropped hair, he left his welding job to join the army as a sharpshooter after Russia invaded. The 47-year-old did his compulsory service as a young man, but when he saw frightened friends fleeing the country in response to the Russian advance, he signed up again. He didn’t want to feel ashamed.
Then one hot, sunny August day, he stepped on what he calls “an anti-foot soldier”—a small, butterfly-shaped land mine with a vicious reputation. The device blew off his lower right leg. At one point during his long recovery, Glukhno grew so despondent he wanted to kill himself. The only reason he didn’t, he says, is because he’s an only child and didn’t want to traumatize his mother.
These days, he’s in much better spirits. He jokes with the interpreter, but then he turns serious: “I have never felt so much compassion as I have here in America. I have never felt such kindness.”
Nelia Redka, 45, is the first female soldier Gradinar has helped. She stands just over 5 feet tall, with high cheekbones and auburn, chin-length hair. The front-line medic lost her right arm slightly below the shoulder after getting hit by incoming bomb shrapnel. Her husband and son also serve in the military, but here at Protez she often stands apart from the other soldiers.
Redka exudes self-consciousness and a quiet sadness. When she does talk, it’s so soft the interpreter has to step closer to hear. She tells me she doesn’t want her photograph taken because of her missing arm. As we talk, she dips the end of her wounded arm alternately into five Tupperware bowls filled with various-sized dried beans, peas, and legumes—nerve-stimulating therapy to help with phantom pain.
THE SOLDIERS SPEND THEIR SECOND FULL day at Protez distracting themselves as they wait for the team to finish building their prostheses. They banter across a chessboard, shuffle decks of cards, grab snacks from nearby tables, or head outside for cigarettes. But tension hangs in the air. A Ukrainian American volunteer who’s watched other groups go through the process says that’s because the soldiers try to be tough but have survived unimaginable horror. They have difficulty picturing a good life with new limbs. They are skeptical of silver linings.
At lunchtime, Voronin rolls his wheelchair to another part of the building where volunteers from First Ukrainian Baptist Church have unloaded home-cooked lunches, like they do every working weekday at Protez. Inviting aromas from dishes like vareniki, a Ukrainian dumpling, and nalysnyky, dessert crepes, entice the soldiers and staff.
Gradinar encourages everyone to eat lunch together as a team at one long table. These soldiers didn’t know each other before they boarded their flight. The doctor wants them to return to Ukraine as friends who can call on one another for support. He sits in the middle of the group, eating quickly and chatting away.
Volunteers are the backbone of Protez. Most come from a variety of Protestant or Catholic churches throughout the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin. Two volunteers are hosting Redka and another soldier. A benefactor recently donated a house where the other six soldiers are staying. Gradinar and Aroshidze used to lodge amputees in their own homes. The foundation received two donated vehicles, and therapists, dentists, and psychologists donate time for each new group.
Even Gradinar’s wife and seven children help. Some are interpreters, several answer phones, one does accounting, one coordinates physical therapists, and another maintains inventory.
Gradinar brings in veterans or special guests like Kierstin Nelson, 33, one of his Minnesota patients, to talk candidly with each amputee group. Nelson lost her left leg from the hip down to necrotizing fasciitis—flesh-eating bacteria—then went blind. Her story rivets the soldiers, who lean forward to catch every word. Glukhno asks if she ever contemplated suicide. She says no, her faith and family prevented her: “God made my life good,” she says. Voronin listens, looks down at his own legs, then at Nelson. “You inspire us,” he tells her through an interpreter.
Another regular guest, Adam Warden, is a paraplegic coach who leads workouts for the amputees. He trains them for mobility, strength, and balance, using floor ladders, cones, and agility drills. He gives tips for avoiding soreness and improving comfort. Warden, a triathlete, lost his left leg after a falling tree crushed it.
“They’ll listen to me more than to a guy with both legs,” he says. “And I served in Iraq, so they know I get it. … Because these guys are with us only three weeks, I push them hard. I want them to figure out where it hurts so we can adjust the fit while they’re still here.”
THAT AFTERNOON, IT’S FINALLY TIME FOR Voronin to try on his new legs. He positions himself in his wheelchair between two shiny, lowered parallel bars. Gradinar fastens on his sockets. Voronin looks down at the shoes attached to the prosthetic feet, focusing.
Gradinar backs away, encouraging Voronin, who pulls himself to standing. He looks forward, then balances, getting used to the sensation of being upright again. Then, he tentatively takes his first steps in six months. Voronin slowly walks to the end of the bars, carefully pivots. and walks back. He turns to face Gradinar and all who’ve been watching, lets go of the bars, and grins. Everyone cheers.
When it’s Kovalchuk’s turn, Gradinar attaches his new left foot and the young soldier can’t contain himself. He takes off, rapidly striding around the room. More cheers. As the other soldiers see these men getting new limbs, the mood in the room shifts. Their faces say it all: That will soon be me.
After finishing their therapy in Minnesota, the group will head to South Carolina before returning to Ukraine. Each group spends its last week on a mini-vacation that Protez arranges somewhere in the United States. It includes therapeutic walking and some fundraising to benefit other amputees. Part of this group also has plans to visit Washington, D.C.
Several of these soldiers, including Kovalchuk, will return to the front lines. Others, like Voronin, plan to find noncombat ways to support the military. “I must find a job I can do because the enemy is not yet conquered,” he says. And he can’t wait to show his wife and 3½-year-old son how he can walk.
Glukhno is eager to get home and use his welding skills to build a big iron staircase in the house of benefactors who helped him and other wounded soldiers. “That is how I can thank them best,” he says.
Redka, the female soldier, had grown happier by the end of her time in Minnesota. Her whole attitude changed, says Gradinar, when Protez brought in another amputee missing his arm at the same level as Redka. He inspired her with his proficiency using his prosthetic hand. And she was pleased to learn Protez would be giving her a cosmetic hand in addition to a robotic one. She will return to Ukraine to train medics.
“She found it very challenging not to have a cosmetic hand. Now she seems much more comfortable being around people and showing it,” Gradinar says.
This spring the doctor and family members will help open a clinic run by his brother, also an orthopedic surgeon, in Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region. Then the Ukrainian amputees he fits in Minnesota will have a place to go for prostheses adjustments near home.
But Gradinar’s work in Oakdale won’t stop. He eventually wants new groups of amputees to come weekly, instead of monthly, with 10 Ukrainians per group. For that he’ll need another place to lodge visitors, but he isn’t worried.
Off-handedly, Gradinar mentions he also pastors a small church in the Twin Cities, then says he’s been thinking a lot about Esther this year as God deepens his trust: “God used her for such a time as this. I am paraphrasing, but I believe He is using me for such a time, too—to help save some of my people.”
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