Reporter Kristen Jordan Shamus and visual journalist Mandi Wright of the Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, are in Poland, near the border with Ukraine. They followed a group of U.S. doctors who traveled to Poland to treat Ukrainian children with burns and congenital abnormalities, the first such trip since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The doctors, from Michigan, Texas, Massachusetts and Missouri, operated on 20 children in the past week. Shamus and Wright this week will tell the children’s stories.
May 17 marked nine years since Volodymyr Bubela’s accident, nine years since he was caught in a barn fire near Lviv, Ukraine, that engulfed his arms, legs, torso, neck and the side of his face in flames.
In the days after the fire, Volodymyr’s injuries were so severe that Dr. Gennadiy Fuzaylov, a Boston-based physician and the founder of the nonprofit Doctors Collaborating to Help Children coordinated a complex international effort to have him airlifted to the U.S. for life-saving treatment by a team of doctors at Shriners Boston Children’s.
Volodymyr stayed for six months, said his mother, Mariia Kit, and has needed repeated surgeries over the years as he’s grown. Many of them, she said, were done in Ukraine, when Fuzaylov and his team of volunteer doctors traveled from the U.S. for annual medical missions.
A mother's gratitude for US doctors' help
“These doctors have had a huge influence on our lives,” she said. “Dr. Fuzaylov, Dr. David Brown (a plastic surgeon from the University of Michigan), and the other doctors saved my child’s life. … I am very grateful for that. Volodya was dying on the operating table, and they saved him.
“He is my only son,” she said, eyes brimming with tears.
Volodymyr lost the fingers on his left hand and the external part of his right ear. Only a portion of the fingers on his right hand remain. Scars run up and down his arms, making it difficult to bend and straighten his elbows.
In the same week as the ninth anniversary of the fire that caused his injuries, Volodymyr, now 17, was on an operating room table again in eastern Poland, where Fuzaylov’s team performed plastic surgery to ease the tightness and contractions in his burn scars.
“This is a difficult case,” Brown said, as he examined an open wound on the back of Volodymyr’s left leg. The medical team cleaned up the wound and bandaged it, and then turned the focus to his hands, arms and neck, trying to restore function.
Brown and two University of Michigan chief medical residents, Dr. Alfred Yoon and Dr. Gina Sacks, worked for about three hours on Volodymyr, along with Dr. Brian Kelley, a plastic surgeon from the University of Austin Dell Medical School, who previously trained with Brown at U-M; Dr. Shawn Diamond, a plastic surgeon with Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso; and Dr. Artem Posunko, a plastic surgeon from the Regional Medical Center of Family Health in Dnipro, Ukraine.
'He danced already today'
Volodymyr was released from the hospital the next day. At dinner, he sat by his mother, and was able to use his bandaged hand to lift a spoon and feed himself.
“I already see results of the surgery,” Kit said. “He is moving his finger! Yesterday and this morning he was in pain, but in the afternoon he was able to use the spoon by himself.
“I want to say how important it is to have a possibility to turn to good doctors when your child is ill or in pain. Availability of the doctors, access to good medical care is very important.”
Volodymyr said he has dreams of one day becoming a 3D designer, making 3-dimensional products from digital designs. He loves to play soccer with his friends.
“Yesterday, he was in a little pain,” Kit said, “but he already danced today.”
Zuza Nikitorowicz translated interviews for this story. To contribute to Doctors Collaborating to Help Children, go to dctohc.org/donations.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ukrainian boy 'was dying on the operating table, and they saved him'