Surge of amputations in Ukraine rival horrors of WWI


In February, Ruslana Danilkina (pictured), a 19-year-old Ukrainian soldier, came under fire near the front line around Zaporizhzhia in south-eastern Ukraine.

Shrapnel tore her left leg off above the knee. She clutched her severed thigh bone and watched medics place her severed leg into the vehicle that took her to a hospital.

“I was holding the bone in my hands … there and then I realised that this was the end, that my life would never be the same again,” Danilkina said.

Danilkina is one of between 20,000 and 50,000 Ukrainians who have lost one or more limbs since the start of the war, according to previously undisclosed estimates by prosthetics firms, doctors and charities.

The actual figure could be higher because it takes time to register patients after they undergo the procedure. Some are only amputated weeks or months after being wounded.

And with Kyiv’s counteroffensive under way, the war may be entering a more brutal phase.

By comparison, some 67,000 Germans and 41,000 Britons had to have amputations during the course of World War I, when the procedure was often the only one available to prevent death.

Fewer than 2,000 US veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions had amputations.

Kyiv has kept precise casualty statistics secret so as not to demoralise the population.

But even as a rough estimate, the number casts light on the staggering human cost of Russia’s 17-month onslaught — a cost that will linger for decades as a generation of invalids returns to civilian life.

Germany’s Ottobock, the world’s largest prosthetics manufacturer, which is working with Kyiv to help amputees, estimates the number of amputees at about 50,000 based on data from the government and medical partners.

At the lower end, the Houp Foundation, a Kyiv-based charity, puts the number of serious injuries caused by the war at 200,000.

About 10 per cent of serious injuries typically require amputations, according to the Foundation.

Such numbers reflect how Russia wages the war, with heavy use of mines and artillery, missile and drone attacks targeting soldiers and civilians alike.

“My grandfather founded our company in 1919 to help … German soldiers returning from World War I wounded by artillery fire, who lost their arms, legs or eyesight — this is exactly what we see in Ukraine,” said Hans Georg Nader, Ottobock’s chairman.

Danilkina had five operations before receiving an artificial leg from Ottobock with the help of Superhumans, a charitable foundation based in the western city of Lviv.

She has since turned 20 and has been documenting her recovery on social media under the nickname Unbreakable Rusya.

Last Monday, she received a more sophisticated leg called Genium X3 developed by Ottobock with the US military that allows users to easily climb stairs or even walk backward.

Denys Kryvenko, a 24-year-old former steelworker from Kropyvnytskiy in central Ukraine, was drafted last year and lost both legs and his left arm in the battle for Bakhmut in January.

Before the injury he was 6 feet 1 inch tall but now stands at 5 feet 6 inches on his artificial legs.

Both Kryvenko and Danilkina now work with Superhumans to help other amputees.

Their social-network activism and media appearances have turned them into symbols of Ukrainian suffering and resilience.

Making enough artificial limbs, some of which cost over €50,000, isn’t the main challenge: The bigger bottleneck is expert staff to care for amputees, each of who needs a tailor-made prosthetic, Nader said.

Kyiv pays up to €20,000 per military amputee but civilians often struggle to afford treatment.

Ottobock grants a discount for Ukrainians and provides free training for doctors and technicians there.

Still, many patients must rely on charities to obtain prostheses. Continue reading

    • Bojan Pancevski is The Wall Street Journal’s Germany correspondent. He also covers Europe at large across major themes.
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