Urologists operated on severely injured soldiers
Two Ukrainian-born surgeons from Syracuse recently traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine, to operate on 13 soldiers with severe injuries to the groin area. Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD, director of reconstructive urology at Upstate, tells about the trip he took with urologic surgeons from Mexico and Poland and his colleague Gennady Bratslavsky, MD, the chief of urology at Upstate. The soldiers' injuries required the expertise of reconstructive urologists. Nikolavsky also tells of a side trip to Bucha and to Syracuse's "sister city," Irpin.
(Click here for photos and an article about this medical mission.)
Host Amber Smith: Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, invites you to be The Informed Patient, with the podcast that features experts from Central New York's only academic medical center. I'm your host, Amber Smith.
Two Ukrainian-born surgeons have recently returned to Syracuse after a medical mission to Kyiv, Ukraine. Here to tell us about it is Dr. Dmitriy Nikolavsky. He's the director of reconstructive urology at Upstate, and he's an internationally recognized expert in the highly specialized field of reconstructive urologic surgery.
Welcome back to "The Informed Patient," Dr. Nikolavsky.
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: Thanks. Thanks for having me here. Great to be here.
Host Amber Smith: Upstate's urologic chief, Dr. Gennady Bratslavsky, has a foundation -- Ukraine1991.org -- that has raised a lot of money to help pay for medical supplies and ambulances and other things that are needed since the Russian invasion. But at the end of November (1993), you and he were part of a mission to Ukraine to help wounded soldiers who needed your expertise. How did this come about?
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: So I was thinking about how to help from the first days of war, and I was hoping that my expertise will be requested or needed. And several times I reached out to my colleagues in my native city, in Odesa, and in Kyiv, and I would hear something like, "Well, it's not really an issue right now. We have bigger problems. We need some other things. We need vascular surgeons. We need orthopedic surgeons." They'd say people either so minorly wounded that that's the least of their problem, or they're so majorly wounded that somebody like you cannot help them.
But, in May of this year (1993), suddenly in the middle of my workday, Dr. Bratslavsky reached out to me. He said, "Hey, join this Zoom meeting. There is this military urologist, and they're actively looking for somebody like you." So it was an interesting, sudden Zoom meeting. I explained that, oh my God, I was trying to find a way to help all this time. By then, it was more than a year. And I was told urology is not really needed. And they're like, "No, this is not true. This is not true. They just don't know. We see all these wounded soldiers. This is the military hospital. You can't imagine what kind of wounds are here, and we don't have expertise."
So it appeared that before the war, this super, super subspecialty was not considered a real specialty in Ukraine. Cancer, (kidney) stones were the real specialties they considered. And whenever it was reconstruction, I think the idea was like, "Aw, anybody can do it." And so suddenly after the war, started that was not the case. And the injuries were tremendous. And the need was tremendous, apparently.
And finally, the right people contacted me, and we started thinking, what could be done? So at first it was maybe we could open our doors here and have patients travel here. But the logistics and finances and countries at war ... there's no way to cross the borders for the soldiers.
Then idea was maybe I can travel to Poland. We can travel to Poland with a team. I know that many in reconstructive society all this time were reaching out to me, like, "How can we help? Anything you need?" And I'm like, "There's no need to help. We are not needed." Until now.
So I thought, maybe organize something to Poland. Then they say, "Still, it's crossing the borders. For soldiers, logistics and transportation. And you don't understand: Many of them have no limbs, and they're still recovering from other trauma. No, it has to be in Ukraine."
So slowly it was, OK, maybe I can just step over the border, and in some nearby village we could do it there. No, you don't understand. There's no condition. So slowly, slowly, it was "No, you have to actually come to Kyiv." And, I agreed. Meanwhile, while it was all happening, the second project was going on. We offered to host two military urologists, very interested and eager to learn reconstruction. So the first contact was in May (1993). Then in August, these two urologists came for a month, and we just booked many, many cases for them to see the world of reconstruction. And they were writing things down and asking many questions and didn't skip a day. They were so dedicated. And then I know that they left back to Kyiv and immediately started doing the surgeries,as much as they could.
It was great to hear from them almost every day. And they would bring some new cases and ask, "What would you do?" And then sometimes in the middle of the case, they would contact me: "Hey, am I doing it right? Do you approve?" And then we would follow these patients remotely for days and weeks.
And then finally we set up the date, and that's it. We were supposed to arrive on December 1st, and it just happened. So, Dr. Bratslavsky and I went through Poland. In Poland we met our Polish colleague that also volunteered to come and our Mexican colleague that we had done multiple other missions and trips over the last seven or eight years in different countries. So a trusted team like this. Damián López is the name of the Mexican friend and colleague, and now we're like brothers after this. And Maciej (Oszczudlowski) is the young reconstructive urologist from Poland. So he met us there.
We immediately boarded the train, and that was a very tortuous, long journey on the train through Ukrainian border, and I think it was about 15-hour trip. Very anxious and excited. By the time we arrived, it was only three of us because, turns out that Dr. López didn't have visa, and he was sent back to Poland. And it took couple of days for him to get visa, and then he later joined us.
But three of us -- Dr. Bratslavsky, Dr. Maciej and myself -- we arrived to Kyiv at about noon. And when people, when they greeted us, they said, "Oh, just in time, we have an air raid right now. It's just to welcome you." (Air raid siren recorded by Nikolavsky.) So they kind of, they take it with humor now. You don't see anybody running for shelters; nobody's hiding. So we kind of took a cue and laughed and smiled. And they took us straight to the hospital, and there was a huge reception. It was Saturday, and everybody was waiting. Nurses, for them it was not the day off. So it was, it was very touching.
The next day we operated. Again, everybody showed up to work like it's a regular day.We did four surgeries, from the morning until the night. And then in the night there is a curfew. So you can't really see anything. You can't really be a tourist during the curfew. They take it seriously. And then Monday, Tuesday, by Tuesday Dr. López finally arrived after his convoluted journey. And we did a couple of more surgeries with him, very complex surgeries.
On Wednesday, we needed to go to city called Irpin. People know Bucha. So Irpin is right next to Bucha. There was a tremendous suffering and destruction in both of the cities. So by 9 o'clock we were supposed to come to Irpin, and there was still one unfinished case. We still planned to do one more surgery that day. So we proposed how about we start at 5 a.m. And everybody said, "No problem. 5 a.m. it is. The only problem is that the curfew stops at 5 a.m. Between midnight and 5 a.m. curfew. It's very serious. You cannot be on the street. So it means that nobody can travel to work to start surgeries at 5 a.m. And then they immediately came up with a solution, without us asking. They say, "You know what? We'll just sleep in the hospital."
Host Amber Smith: So you were connected, obviously, with some dedicated surgeons on that end as well?
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: Oh yeah. It's not just surgeons we're talking about. This was anesthesiologists and scrub techs and all the support, the nurses. They just kind of, when we discussed it, it was like a big gathering after the very last case on Tuesday. They said, "Oh, not a big deal. It's not a problem." It was very easy. There was no voting or anything. They just, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." So they all stayed in the hospital, and our hotel was right next, adjacent to the hospital. So, by 5:05 we just walked in, and we started the very last surgery.
Host Amber Smith: I want to ask you, if you can, I know these were very severe injuries. These are soldiers who obviously survived, but with severe ... Some of them lost their limbs, and they're left with tubes, unable to urinate, right?
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: Yes.
Host Amber Smith: What were you able to do? What were you able to do for them?
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: So injuries were very different. One of the first cases was an abdominal disaster when it just happened. I think it was some kind of explosion, maybe a missile or a mine. I'm not sure. Many organs were damaged. So this patient was probably operated on multiple times for a year, so it's not something new.
And the one residual injury that is left -- the tube that connects the kidney to the bladder. It's called ureter. So one kidney was OK, and the other kidney on the right side, that natural tube that delivers urine was obstructed by all the scar. And so the original surgeons, maybe about six months ago, they tried to reestablish the passage, and it just failed. So patient was obstructed and had to live with tubes going through his back to an external bag for him just to survive. He was recovering from all other injuries, meanwhile. But one of the tubes, he would have to live with a catheter sticking out of his back and draining into a bag that he would carry around. And so, that was a very tricky, dangerous surgery because he had so many other operations, so much scar. So no robot, no laparoscopic equipment. It was all open (surgery). And, that was the first surgery that Dr. Bratslavsky was doing, very carefully. It's almost like a mine in the minefield to find all the organs, not to damage them, not to get into the bleeding, and reconnect the ureter to the bladder.
And in other cases it was not the ureter. It may be the bladder, or it may be the urethra, which is the tube connecting the bladder to the outside world and allows people to urinate. And in some cases it was a scar tissue that doesn't allow passage of urine, so they, they have to live with tubes sticking straight from the bladder. In some other cases, it was complete destruction. It was some kind of violent explosion or blunt injury that completely disconnected and stayed disconnected like this for six months to a year, sometimes even for 18 months.
That's not life threatening once you have the tubes, but it's extremely poor lifestyle and debilitating. So none of these things that we did are lifesaving, but they return dignity, I hope, and they return function. Now we call this field of urology "functional reconstruction," so we return back the function.
Host Amber Smith: So, while you were there in the hospital, what did you notice that the hospital needs, that the surgeons need, that you have come back and would like to raise money to buy this equipment for them? Can you tell us about that?
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: Well, they need everything, but we need to go on a scale of preference. What do they need first? So they need our specialized urologic reconstruction instruments. And I brought them whatever I could. I gave them whatever I could when they were here. So they're getting their kit together for actual surgeries.
What I noticed that we here take for granted, there are special stirrups to support patient's legs during the surgery that are safe. And when we showed up there, the stirrups, the old-fashioned stirrups that they use, are not exactly safe. Nobody uses them here anymore. I have traveled in many countries, operated in all kind of conditions, and I would say half of the time people don't use this kind of stirrups. And the reason is that it's too easy to create damage to nerve structures and muscles in the leg. And imagine you operate for one quality of life, and you return urination, and suddenly in the worst-case scenario, patients can't walk anymore. That's how bad it could be. And so we operated with the old-fashioned beds and old-fashioned stirrups, and of course one of the patients had minor complication of the sort, it's reversible, but it kind of was a sign, OK, we need, we need to take it seriously.
So, good, safe stirrups, brand-new ones, they could be like $17,000. So they don't need brand-new ones. They just need functional in a good condition stirrups. And I found a vendor who sells refurbished stirrups for three and half thousand dollars. This is a huge discount. So at least one or two pairs of these would change the safety and outcomes of the surgery.
The second thing that we take for granted is the prevention of clots in the legs during any surgery. And these are these mechanical pneumatic massagers that every patient gets as soon as they get to the hospital here. So if you go bed-to-bed or operating room-to-operating room, that's the first thing you'll notice. Everybody wears these massagers, pneumatic compression devices. And there was none in that entire hospital, not even one unit like this. Apparently it's not a thing. We need to provide at least several of these machines. They're, again, refurbished, maybe under $1,000, maybe a couple of them.Ideally everybody in the hospital would get them eventually, but at least for people during the surgery or recovering from surgery, they need to be connected to those massagers.
And finally, when we operated, there was a very specialized retractors that a previous group -- there was a previous group from Cleveland, maybe two months ago -- they came, they donated specialized retractors, but they didn't have proper attachments for the surgery. So fortunately I had some attachments that I travel with, in my travel kit. So we were able to use them. But now I know that we need couple of thousand dollars to supply them with the proper attachment to do the surgeries.
And that's to start. Of course, they need all the fancy sutures that we use, and they need (special surgical) loops, and they need headlamps. But that's for later. For right now, I think these three things are the No. 1, 2 and 3 priority.
Host Amber Smith: You already have a foundation already set up for this. Ukraine1991.org is the website people can go to to make donations now.
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: So yes, this is Dr. Bratslavsky's effort with his family and friends. I think he created it the first week of, after the war started. And it's not specifically for this mission. This foundation, there is a lot of help, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of medications and several trips when they delivered ambulances to different hospitals, first aid kits, tourniquets, you name it, you could see all the missions that they had.
But we're joining right now specifically for this mission or for the following mission. So then in the next couple of months, all these donations hopefully will go toward these goals, to supply this hospital with everything that is immediately necessary to help the soldiers.
Host Amber Smith: You are listening to Upstate's "The Informed Patient" podcast. I'm your host, Amber Smith. My guest is Dr. Dmitriy Nikolavsky. He's the director of reconstructive urology at Upstate, and he is telling about a recent medical mission to his native Ukraine to help wounded soldiers.
So getting back to the soldiers, will you be able to follow up with them? Because you don't just do the surgery, and it's done, right? They have got some care afterward. How does that work?
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: So while we were there, we were rounding and seeing them every day. When we left the surgeons that work with us, we contacted every single day since we left Ukraine: how are they doing? What is the temperature? What is the output? Are the catheters out? Are they ambulating, are they walking around? So it, it was a constant remote follow-up. And we left behind all our protocols how to follow up patients in situations like this. Once the catheters are out, they will be seeing them every three to four months for the first year, with certain tests that we usually do, what to do if something goes wrong.
They're in constant contact with us about this and future patients. Because while I was there, they brought up patients that were kind of straight from the front lines. And there's nothing we could do yet for those additional 10 patients that we have seen, but maybe they'll be ready in about six months. Hopefully we'll come again in six months. We'll be able to follow up on our current patients and do something good for patients that will be accumulated by then.
I guess these injuries are so common that the list -- they have a list of everybody that needs help -- the immediate list was about 60 -- (that's) six-zero -- 60 patients. The surgeons that we trained diminished that list a little bit. And then the group from Cleveland came and took care of 19 or 20 patients.
We came, we had 19 patients on the list for different reasons, transportation or health issues, we were able to operate on 13 patients that were ready, and the other six were just not ready for a variety of issues. But some of the surgeries that we did were stage one of a multi-stage reconstruction, so we will have to come back for stage two.
And by then, I hope not, but I expect that by then there'll be more patients ready for more surgery.
Host Amber Smith: Why were you willing, and Dr. Bratslavsky and the other doctors from Poland and Mexico, why were you willing to go into a war zone?
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: Because that's where the patients were. There was no other way.
Host Amber Smith: Was it scary?
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: It was scary to prepare and to think about the worst-case scenarios. And I have to say that when the train was moving in the middle of the night, there was all kind of noises, and I'm through my sleep thinking, are we being bombed? And then I went back to sleep, kind of like, nah, I would know if we were bombed. So, it was kind of, it wasn't a fear. It was just kind of anxiety. How's it going to go? What will happen? But then you arrive there, and everybody (is) kind of so chill about it, and they just go on with their life.
When you're surrounded with brave people, it's kind of, you have no choice and just blend in. Apparently when we were operating, the air raid alerts were sounding all the time, but everybody has apps, a special app for the air raid alert. They kind of put them on silent because it just happens too often, and they can see that it's disruptive. So we didn't even know. We were working. Nobody ran out. Nobody was hiding. We probably worked 40 minutes, probably, there were air raid alerts. Nobody panicked. We just continued. It would be very strange if one of us started running out and hiding in the basement.
Host Amber Smith: What was communication like?
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: My first language is Russian. I was born in the previous century, and the city Odesa was, at that point, predominantly Russian speaking. I don't know, now. We didn't visit Odesa. And I understand that the language was not a big deal until the war. The Russian invasion made it about the language, but it was never about the language. They just didn't want to be part of Russia.
And so I'm guilty. I never learned Ukrainian. I should. So it was strange. I had to apologize just because I didn't feel good about it. So I said I could speak English if it sounds better. I could speak Russian with accent by now. I made a joke. There was an interview. I said, "I apologize. I speak every language with accent right now, so you know, if you don't mind, I'll speak Russian, language with (accent)." But nobody cared. They're like, "Hey, whatever." So I felt internally guilty, but it doesn't matter. To them it doesn't matter. You know, we came to help, and they appreciated it.
Host Amber Smith: So I know you mentioned after the surgeries you took sort of a side trip to Bucha and Irpin. Can you tell us more about that?
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: Yes. So that, that was in itself an interesting story. So we finished that early morning case. It was our very last case of the day, of the trip, and we were about to leave the hospital, but then all the hallways, all the staircases, all the entrances, I guess the whole streets around this hospital were blocked by security. It's interesting thatI think internet was also interrupted for that purpose, and we knew that somebody big and important was visiting the hospital. And we were not able to move for a little bit.
And then later when we were out of the hospital, from the news, we found out that actually President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy visited the hospital, and including visiting our patients that we just rounded on and shook their hands and gave some medals to leaders of that hospital. We were kind of sad. We thought, well, if we stayed in the room for a little bit longer, maybe we would get to meet Zelenskyy. But in reality, it would never happen.
So anyway, after we were allowed to leave, we went to Irpin, and there was a huge ceremony. It was a "Day of the Defenders," so they had a huge ceremony, maybe a couple of hundreds, maybe thousands of people were in the main plaza. The city that suffered 70% destruction just 18 months ago was completely rebuilt. And they took huge pride in the fact that anytime something explodes, even now, drone or a bomb anywhere and destroys the building or windows or asphalt, immediately they clean it up, asphalt the place, paint, put flowers, put the windows back, rebuild it. So when we came to Irpin, we expected, like we were told, 70% destruction. They had hard time, just as an example, showing us destroyed buildings because everything was nicely cleaned. Beautiful shops, gift shops, restaurants, planted trees, everything is painted beautiful. So in the center, there was a big ceremony. And I found out -- I didn't know what to expect -- but I found out that mayor of Irpin -- big hero who defended the city from the invasion successfully -- would be there. And he called Bratslavsky. And, and during the ceremony, Bratslavsky donated four pickup trucks to the defense efforts.
So we were there. It was interesting. We were given Syracuse flag to represent Syracuse. We were, all of us, the whole medical group, was holding Syracuse flag next to these donated cars. And many other volunteers and donors were there donating other things. So Bratslavsky gave a speech in pure Ukrainian. I was so surprised. He speaks Ukrainian really well. We received some kind of diplomas that we were there and thank-you certificates. But actually the whole thank-you should be to Bratslavsky and his organization, because it's just one of the things that he is relentlessly doing over the last, I would say, 20 months.
While we were there in Irpin, while we were in Kyiv, I saw many times the different people from different organizations came to say thank you for everything that his organization donated. So I didn't know. He is not showing off here what he is doing, but I just got to witness this huge appreciation to different projects that he is doing, including receiving, and justifiably receiving, certificate of appreciation for the cars that he donated, his organization.
And then we were invited to go to city hall, full of people. And to me, again, I didn't know what to expect, so it seemed to me like a concert, like people were, the whole audience, there was no more places to sit, standing room only. And I thought it was a concert because somebody was singing in the beginning. There were speeches. And then suddenly they said, "And now we'll be posthumously giving awards to fallen soldiers from Irpin, the heroes of Irpin." And they started calling the families to the stage. This was probably the most devastating, to me, moment. The mothers, the wives, would come to the stage one by one, receive some kind of, I don't know, medal or some kind of little box, and then cry and sit. Silence. Just people crying. And it seemed that the list was endless. Now, I assume that everybody who were seated probably were relatives. So that it was, that was very hard.
So then we were given a tour of Bucha. They were showing us Bucha again. The city was also rebuilt. It's almost impossible to see the signs of damage. And we got a chance to spend some time, have lunch with the mayor of Irpin, and that was a huge honor. And then after that, we just had to go back and meet the the doctors at the train station, and that was the end of the trip.
So I don't know at what point, now it's hard to say. Even before we were through the border, even before on the train, maybe that day or maybe the day before -- I was already, I knew that we need to come again.
Host Amber Smith: It sounds like the need is still going to be there.
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: Unfortunately. And besides that, we'll be doing other projects. We'll invite the two military doctors, the two military urologists that are so eager to learn reconstruction, we'll try to invite them to any possible workshop that we do around the world. One is upcoming in Mexico. I'm hoping that they'll get permission to join there, hands-on reconstructive workshop. There is one in Texas, big reconstructive meeting, national meeting, in May. We'll try to get them here again to present what they see because their experience is unique. And also to keep teaching them and try to help that reconstructive center, the only one in Ukraine, the first one, and so that would be my big accomplishment, if it happens.
Host Amber Smith: Was there, did you find adequate food and water? And you said the hotel was right next door, so you had a place to stay. Was there anything lacking that jumped out at you or that people asked you about?
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: No. It's good thing, but it's also confusing thing because it looks like, on the street, life goes on. The restaurants, the stores, even luxury stores and luxury restaurants and Christmas decorations,the traffic. It felt like just a regular European city, like nothing is happening. And the only giveaway would be on the sides of many roads there were these pieces of fortifications that they used when the city was surrounded. This is like anti-tank metal porcupines. I think I translated them -- porcupines -- made out of railroad pieces and concrete. They call them, I think, "teeth of dragon." So if you put them in the middle of the street, then somehow it protects from tanks and machinery. So right now it's not in the center of the streets. It's kind of swept to the sides. So almost every road has a collection, a pile of both of these fortifications. And so every so often you pass, and that reminds you that, OK, so that's actually happening.
Every so often there would be military equipment, I guess anti-drone machinery, driving around. Actually, I'm not sure what it was, but I assume that that was the anti-drone unit. But other than that, everything is open. No bread lines. The food was spectacular. When we arrived, I guess they waited for us for so long, and nobody could believe that we actually arrived, and they cooked (up) a storm -- I think it's nurses and scrub techs -- amazing foods that I haven't tried anything like this for the last 30 years.
Host Amber Smith: Did you bring back any souvenirs?
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: Yes. So, we got many interesting surprises. When we were leaving at the train station, the whole battalion of doctors in military uniform showed up in the train station. They showed up with flags -- an American flag, a Mexican flag, a Polish flag, too, to honor. It was a surprise. And two Ukrainian flags, and one flag was signed by all the soldiers that we treated. And another flag was actually signed by (General Valerii) Zaluzhnyi, which is his (President Zelenskyy's) main general in Ukraine right now. He is like a mythical figure, so it was remarkable. So we got these two flags as gifts. So one of the flags is in our clinic here. We have picture with nurses. Nurses also donated a lot of money for the ambulances. There was a drive a year ago and still continues, so it was really cool to have all the nurses pose next to the flag. That was actually their help went there. So it's kind of a full circle.
And we got a traditional Ukrainian vodka and a couple of souvenirs. I'll keep it unopened until victory.
Host Amber Smith: Well, I'm really glad that you made it back safely, and I'm appreciative that you took the time to tell us about your trip. And I want to make sure that listeners know Ukraine1991.org is the website where they can go to make donations for equipment and medical supplies for the future.
Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD: Thank you.
Host Amber Smith: My guest has been Upstate's director of reconstructive urology, Dr. Dmitriy Nikolavsky. And to donate to help future medical missions, visit Ukraine1991.org.
"The Informed Patient" is a podcast covering health, science and medicine, brought to you by Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, and produced by Jim Howe.
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