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Surgeons work by flashlight as Ukrainian power grid batters

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Dr Oleh Duda was in the middle of a particularly complicated surgery at a hospital in Lviv, Ukraine, when he heard explosions nearby. Moments later, the lights went out.

Duda had no choice but to continue working with a headlamp for lighting. The lights came back on when a generator started three minutes later, but it felt like an eternity.

“Those fateful minutes could have cost the patient his life,” the cancer surgeon told The Associated Press.

The operation on the patient’s main artery took place on November 15, when the city in western Ukraine suffered blackouts as Russia unleashed a new barrage of missiles on the power grid, damaging nearly 50% of the country’s energy installations.

The devastating strikes, which continued over the past week and again plunged the country into darkness, have strained and disrupted the health system, already plagued by years of corruption, mismanagement, the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 and nine months of war.

Scheduled operations are postponed; patient records are unavailable due to internet outages; and paramedics had to use flashlights to examine patients in dark apartments.

The World Health Organization said last week that Ukraine’s healthcare system was facing “its darkest days of the war so far”, amid the growing energy crisis, the arrival of a cold winter and other challenges.

“This winter will put the lives of millions of people in Ukraine at risk,” WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr Hans Kluge said in a statement.

He predicted that an additional 2-3 million people could leave their homes in search of warmth and safety, and “will face unique health challenges including respiratory infections such as COVID-19, pneumonia and flu “.

Last week, the Kyiv Heart Institute posted on its Facebook page a video of surgeons operating on a child’s heart with only light from headlamps and a battery-powered flashlight.

“Rejoice, Russians, a child is on the table, and during an operation the lights went out completely,” Dr. Boris Todurov, director of the capital’s institute, said in the video. “We will now turn on the generator – unfortunately this will take a few minutes.”

Attacks have also hit hospitals and outpatient clinics in southeastern Ukraine. The WHO said in a statement last week that it had verified at least 703 attacks between February 24, when Russian troops arrived in Ukraine, and November 23.

The Kremlin has dismissed accusations that it targets civilian facilities. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted again last week that Russia only targets sites “directly or indirectly linked to military power”.

But just last week, a strike at a maternity hospital in eastern Ukraine killed a newborn baby and seriously injured two doctors. In the northeast region of Kharkiv, two people were killed after Russian forces shelled an outpatient clinic.

In Lviv, Duda said the explosions were so close to the hospital that “the walls were shaking”, and doctors and patients had to go down to the shelter in the basement – which happens every time a air raid siren sounded.

The hospital, which specializes in the treatment of cancer, performed only 10 of the 40 operations scheduled that day.

In the recently recaptured southern city of Kherson, without electricity after the Russian retreat, crippled elevators are a real challenge for paramedics.

They have to transport immobile patients up the stairs of apartment buildings and then bring them back up to the operating theaters.

Everywhere in Kherson, where it starts to get dark after 4 p.m. in late November, doctors use headlamps, phone lights and flashlights. In some hospitals, key equipment no longer works.

Last Tuesday, Russian strikes on the southern city injured 13-year-old Artur Voblikov and doctors had to amputate his arm. Medical workers carried the teenager through the dark stairwells of a children’s hospital to an operating theater on the sixth floor.

“Breathing machines don’t work, X-ray machines don’t work. … There is only one portable ultrasound machine and we constantly carry it,” said Dr. Volodymyr Malishchuk, head of the surgical department of a children’s hospital in Kherson.

The generator used by the children’s hospital broke down last week, leaving the facility without any form of electricity for several hours. Doctors wrap newborn babies in blankets because there is no heat, said Dr Olga Pilyarska, deputy chief of intensive care.

The lack of heat makes it difficult for patients to operate, said Dr Maya Mendel, from the same hospital. “No one will put a patient on an operating table when the temperatures are below zero,” she said.

Health Minister Viktor Liashko said on Friday there were no plans to close the country’s hospitals, no matter how serious the situation, but the authorities “will optimize the use of space and accumulate all that is needed in smaller areas” for heating. Easier.

Liashko said diesel or gas generators have been supplied to all Ukrainian hospitals, and in the coming weeks another 1,100 generators sent by the country’s Western allies will also be delivered to hospitals. Currently, hospitals have enough fuel to last for seven days, the minister said.

Additional standby generators are still needed, the minister added. “Generators are designed to work for a short time – three to four hours,” but power outages can last up to three days, Liashko said.

In the recently recaptured territories, the medical system is in shock after months of Russian occupation.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russian forces of shutting down medical facilities in the Kherson region and looting medical equipment – even ambulances, “literally everything”.

Dr. Olha Kobevko, who recently returned from the recaptured areas of Kherson after delivering humanitarian aid there, echoed the president’s remarks in an interview.

“The Russians even stole towels, blankets and bandages from medical institutions,” Kobevko said.

In Kyiv, the majority of hospitals are operating as usual, while relying on generators part of the time.

Meanwhile, small private practices and dental clinics are struggling to keep their doors open to patients.

Dr. Viktor Turakevich, a dentist in Kyiv, said he has to postpone even urgent appointments because power outages at his clinic last at least four hours a day and a generator he ordered will take weeks to run. to arrive.

“Every doctor has to answer a question about who they will greet first,” Turakevich said.

Power outages have also made it difficult to access patient records online, and the Health Ministry system that stores all data is unavailable, said Kobevko, who works in the western city of Chernivtsy.

Duda, the cancer surgeon in Lviv, said three doctors and several nurses from his hospital had left to treat Ukrainian soldiers on the front line.

“The war has affected every doctor in Ukraine, whether west or east, and the level of pain we face every day is difficult to measure,” Duda said.

Mednick reported from Kherson, Ukraine. Karmanau and Litvinova reported from Tallinn, Estonia.

Follow AP coverage of the war in Ukraine at: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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