Ukrainian soldiers come to Minnesota for prosthetics, hope

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

On the night war came, it felt like time stopped. Dr. Yakov "Jacob" Gradinar, who emigrated from Ukraine to the United States in 2007, couldn't keep his eyes off the news: Bombs, then more bombs. He called his parents in the western Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia. They told him bombs hit Lviv, only 120 miles away.

Gradinar pleaded with his parents and four siblings to leave. But no: "This," they told him, "is ours."

Amid hopelessness, Gradinar prayed: How to help from half a world away? In time, an answer would come to the former orthopedic surgeon in Ukraine, now a prosthetic limb specialist in Minneapolis.

That same February night, Maxym Shevchenko, a 23-year-old Ukrainian Army commander, was also stunned. He was stationed in eastern Ukraine, near the Donbas region coveted by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Shevchenko had dismissed Putin's saber-rattling — until Russian missiles flew overhead. One exploded next to him, severing his left shin.

Shevchenko lay on the ground, thinking of his parents, and his sister, and the girl he planned to marry. He realized his left leg was gone. For a moment, he didn't care if he lived or died.

Then he saw an army friend. The friend bent down and lifted him up.

Nearly half a year later, on a pleasant July evening, Shevchenko sat outside a coffee shop in downtown Minneapolis. Four more Ukrainian soldiers were with him. Of the five, four had lost one leg; a fifth had lost both. Nearby stood Gradinar, the 46-year-old prosthetist at Limb Lab who, along with others in Minnesota's Ukrainian community, have secured donations, cajoled American and Ukrainian leaders, burst through months of red tape, and figured how to get these men here and make their bodies whole.

These five are the first; soon will be more. This week, a 9-year-old boy arrived, missing an arm. On Saturday: an 11-year-old boy missing a leg. Later this month: an older Ukrainian couple from Bucha, site of the war's most horrific massacre by Russian troops, the husband missing a leg.

And then, hopefully, more. Gradinar has a list of nearly 400 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians in need of prosthetics, who had found online Prosthetics for Ukrainians, the organization he founded with Yury Aroshidze, a 28-year-old Belarusian living in the Twin Cities.

As people sipped coffee and wine nearby, the soldiers smoked cigarettes and marveled at their new limbs. The man who lost both legs stood from his wheelchair with the aid of his wife, and he walked — gingerly, slowly, but remarkably, considering he'd been fitted for prostheses two days before.

Shevchenko spoke of when he lay on the ground, leg newly gone, debating whether to live or die. At that moment, he couldn't have known his upcoming journey: Months in a Ukrainian hospital, then rehab, then a flight to Minnesota. In his horrific beginning to a horrific war, he couldn't see the future. Shevchenko only saw his army buddy, lifting him up.

"And I realized, 'I should stand, and I should live,'" he said through a translator.

The war in Ukraine has upended the world. A nation devastated. Millions of Ukrainians displaced in Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II. A global food crisis. Skyrocketing energy costs. A Western coalition reinvigorated through a war where lines couldn't be more clear: the West versus Russia, democracy versus authoritarianism, good versus evil.

Against the odds, Ukraine continues to fight. A war many had expected to last just days stretches on. And with it, mind-numbing casualty figures.

Estimates vary widely, as Ukraine and Russia tightly guard casualty statistics. More than 11,000 Ukrainian combatants and civilians have been killed so far, although that estimate based on data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project is considered conservative; the United Nations estimates more than 12,000 total casualties just among civilians, and the Ukrainian government says 100 to 200 soldiers die daily. Recent U.S. intelligence estimates say 75,000 Russian casualties.

Gradinar focuses on a more manageable tally: the 395 Ukrainians who've applied for his prosthetics.

Like the 9-year-old who arrived Wednesday — he lost his arm when a rocket killed his father and stepbrother. He's the same age as Gradinar's youngest children, twins.

Gradinar pulled up the boy's passport. He pointed to his birth year: 2013.

"That's what shocks you, when you look at that," he said.

The war quickly galvanized Minnesota's Ukrainian American population, about 16,000 strong. Some formed Stand With Ukraine MN, which sends money, medical aid, food and clothing to Ukraine while engaging in advocacy and holding fundraisers, including a dinner on Sunday with the soldiers.

Mykola Sarazhynskyy, who came from Ukraine for college and now lives in Plymouth and works in marketing, has been horrified at the invasion. "It feels like Mongol Tatars in the 1200s," he said, "just hordes of tribes, moving in and pretty much killing what they see."

Worried about his mother and sister in Ukraine, he figured he had two choices: Go fight, or help from here. He helped from here, and he has become a key connector and fundraiser in Minnesota's Ukrainian community. They've all found each other: Sarazhynskyy, Gradinar, Aroshidze, more. The work helps them process survivor's guilt. Their help has been all-encompassing: They sent body armor, tactical medicine supplies such as tourniquets and blood-clotting medications, and negative pressure wound therapy devices to help amputees heal. The prosthetics project has gone viral in Ukraine with social media posts from a Ukrainian comedian, Viktor Hevko, who is close with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

"At times it seems like things happen serendipitously, where people connect very quickly over the same goal," Sarazhynskyy said.

The first five soldiers arrived on a Saturday night in late July. By Sunday morning, they were relearning how to walk. Two days later, they strode in downtown Minneapolis as passersby tried not to stare.

Daniel Sivakov, 21, of Mariupol, stood on his two new legs. His blue-green eyes looked out from under a fresh buzz cut from a Minnesota barber, and his face sported peach fuzz.

On March 21, a Russian drone spotted his unit in a trench in the Donbas. Missiles rained in. The friend next to him was killed.

Walking feels like a miracle, he said, even if his stumps are sore. He's enjoying America: a meal at Fogo de Chao, a running clinic at the University of Minnesota, a trip to Turtle Lake for tubing, a visit to Chicago, a break from wartime. His mother and 4-year-old brother are relatively safe in western Ukraine, but he worries for his soldier father. When Sivakov's phone rings, he's afraid to pick up.

While the men were in Chicago, Gradinar and a dozen Ukrainians gathered at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The door opened, and an exuberant 9-year-old boy burst through: Artem Fedorenko, his left arm gone. His mother, Oksana Shpakovych, is excited for her son's new arm; she doesn't want him to be different from other boys. Artem is excited too; he loves Marvel movies. "He decided he's going to be Iron Man," she said through a translator.

Outside the coffee shop downtown, Shevchenko, who lost his leg the first day of the war, stood then sat, testing his new leg. He believes in karma, that Putin will receive justice.

For now, he watches Gradinar make adjustments to his new leg and enjoys a taste of the United States. "There is no war," he said, "at least not for now."

But his medical leave ends soon, and then he'll return home, to a war zone. Even though he has one leg, he still wants to be a soldier: to go to the front lines, to fight for his country.

"It would be the worst if they told me I won't be able to be in the military," he said. "That would kill me."