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Upstate urologists treat injured Ukrainian soldiers

Two Ukrainian-born urologists from Upstate Medical University ecently traveled on a surgical mission to Kyiv, Ukraine, to help soldiers injured in that country’s war with Russia. 

Urology Chief Gennady Bratslavsky, MD, and Dmitriy Nikolavsky, MD, director of reconstructive urology, were accompanied by urologists from Mexico and Poland.

The surgeons operated on 13 soldiers over four days. They experienced constant air raid sirens and a strict curfew. As the visiting surgeons departed, the Ukrainian medical team presented them with flags autographed by the patients and by a top general in Ukraine. One of the flags now hangs in the urology office at Upstate. 

Arrangements for the mission began in May, when Bratslavsky learned of a military urologist in Ukraine who was in search of reconstructive expertise. Several soldiers had severe injuries in the abdomen and groin area. In August, a pair of Ukrainian urologists traveled to Syracuse, so Nikolavsky could teach them some of his techniques, which sometimes included transplanting tissue from the patient’s mouth to the damaged urethra.

When the urologists returned to the war zone, they kept in close touch with Nikolavsky as they operated. However some of their patients had extensive wounds, and the surgeons implored Nikolavsky to travel to their hospital in Kyiv to help the soldiers. Months after they were injured, many remained catheterized, or connected to tubes that allowed urine to drain from their bodies. 

“It’s an extremely poor lifestyle, and debilitating,” Nikolavsky said of the condition. His goal was to make repairs that would allow the men to urinate without tubes or catheters. “None of the things we did are lifesaving, but they return dignity, I hope, and they return to function.”

The four surgeons made plans to arrive in early December. Nikolavsky and Bratslavsky met Mexican urologist Damián López, MD, and Polish urologist Maciej Oszczudlowski, MD, in Poland and took a lengthy train ride across the border to Kyiv. Bratslavsky grew up in Kyiv, the nation’s capital. Nikolavsky is from Odesa, on the Black Sea coast, about a six-hour drive from Kyiv.

They stayed in a hotel next to the hospital where they would work. Shops and restaurants were open, and people went about their days despite the frequent sirens and the signs of military activity in the streets, Nikolavsky recalled.

In an interview for Upstate’s “The Informed Patient” podcast, he describes the metal pieces of fortification on the sides of roads and the military vehicles they saw. 

After wrapping up the surgeries in Kyiv, they visited the nearby cities of Bucha and Irpin, which became Syracuse’s “sister city” last April when Irpin Mayor Oleksandr Markushyn visited Syracuse and signed an agreement with Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh. Nikolavsky says signs of the extensive destruction were hard to find because the Ukrainians have almost completely rebuilt over the last 18 months. 

“They took huge pride in the fact that anytime something explodes, even now, a drone or a bomb anywhere that destroys the building or windows or asphalt, immediately they clean it up, asphalt the place, paint, plant flowers, put the windows back, rebuild it,” he said.

Days after the Russian invasion in February 2022, Bratslavsky created a nonprofit foundation, which can be found at ukraine1991.org. Money raised so far has gone to purchase medical equipment and supplies, ambulances and trucks to help the people of Ukraine. Now he’s hoping to raise money for three specific items the urology team needs: stirrups that help secure patients during surgery, mechanical pneumatic massagers that help prevent blood clots, and attachments for a specialized surgical retractor.

Nikolavsky and Bratslavsky are in contact with the military urologists about the patients they operated on, plus potential future patients. Because so many soldiers need their help, they plan to return.

Caption: The team of urologists in Kyiv included, from left, Ukraine's Artem Kobirnichenko, Mexico's Damián López, Upstate's Dmitriy Nikolavsky, Poland's Maciej Oszczudlowski and Upstate's Gennady Bratslavsky.