How UNICEF is helping hospitals fight COVID-19 in Ukraine
A delivery of 100 oxygen concentrator machines is helping conflict-weary doctors and nurses to fight the coronavirus pandemic in eastern Ukraine.
Antonina, 58, was struggling to breathe and had a high fever by the time she realised she had contracted COVID-19.
Overnight, she was rushed into the pneumonia and COVID-19 department of a hospital in Krasnohorivka in eastern Ukraine, where she was hooked up to an oxygen supply.
“I couldn’t breathe,” says Antonina. “The doctors were at my side all the time. They were making IVs even at 3:30 in the morning and sitting next to me overnight. They saved me from death.”
"As if the war was not enough”
Antonina is one of lucky ones. After nearly seven years of conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic is further straining hospitals in eastern Ukraine.
While doctors at Krasnohorivka’s Mariinka District Hospital fight for the lives of their patients, another battle field lies just beyond its walls, less than a kilometer away.
“If you look out the window, you can see the ‘contact line’ and even the other side,” says Ivan Herus, acting head of the pneumonia and COVID-19 department.
Part of the hospital’s four-story brick building is now closed after it became a target for fire and shells in 2017. In the corridors of the departments that still remain open, arrows on the walls direct people to a nearby bomb shelter in case of new attacks. Heating the hospital is a constant struggle – there has been no gas supply in the town for more than six years. Utilities, medicines and public transportation are already in short supply as a result of the armed conflict.
“Trouble came in threes,” says Antonina, pulling a fluffy woollen shawl over her shoulders. “As if the war was not enough, now we also have the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s hard for everyone to live in Krasnohorivka. Especially for our children and grandchildren.”
“We lack a centralised supply"
Family members are not allowed to visit COVID patients for their own safety.
“My family does not forget me, they call and bring me medicines,” says Antonina. “I am happy that I have children and grandchildren who are always there.”
Antonina’s doctor, Ivan Herus, is pleased with her recovery. According to him, the oxygen concentrator machine was crucial to her survival. However, supplies are limited.
“We lack a centralized supply of ballooned medical oxygen," he says. “If it weren’t for the concentrators, we wouldn’t be able to work at all. It is critical.”
The concentrators used to treat patients at Mariinka District Hospital were donated by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) with financial support from the German Government. The machines extract oxygen from room air and delivers it to patients via plastic tubing.
A total of five regions in eastern Ukraine received 100 oxygen concentrators procured by UNICEF as part of the support rendered to the Government of Ukraine. Half of the delivery was supplied to Kharkiv, Zaporizhia and Dnipro regions. Another half was delivered to the conflict-affected regions of Donetsk and Luhansk to help medical institutions near the ‘contact line’ to cope with the challenges caused by COVID-19. This assistance was made possible thanks to funding from the German Government in cooperation with the Ministry of Health of Ukraine.
“Thanks to them, I can breathe”
Nurse Varvara Tymurova dons protective overalls, shoe covers, a mask, a hair cover, visor, glasses and gloves each day before entering the intensive care unit at Volnovakha Central District Hospital, which is also a few kilometers away from the ‘line of contact’, where clashes are the most severe.
The department is divided into two zones – red and green, or ‘contaminated’ and ‘clean’.
“Nobody can imagine how hard it is to work with all this protective equipment on you,” says Varvara, whose face is marked from long hours wearing a mask. “Concentrators work in the rooms, they heat up everything around and these protective overalls. And that’s how it goes all day long. Yes, it happens that we do leave the red zone, but it’s only for an hour or two, and then again we need to go there.”
The hospital cares for patients with severe COVID-19 from all over the region. Here, too, the oxygen concentrators that have been donated by UNICEF are vital.
“We have people who can no longer breathe without the equipment,” adds Varvara. “If they were transferred to us, it means that a person is really in bad condition. It seems to me that now people are already infected all over the region."
Varvara is used to working long shifts, having spent much of the armed conflict treating military personnel and civilians wounded due to shelling. But the COVID-19 pandemic makes her worry not only for her patients, but also her own family members.
“My son has bronchial asthma. And I was worried about how he would endure everything if, God forbid, he got infected. We constantly wear protective masks, treat our hands. I was afraid that I might bring home some kind of infection.”
After a hard 24-hour shift at the hospital, Varvara removes and disposes of her protective suit, and places her personal belongings into a plastic bag to wash them at home. However, her day is far from over. Getting home is another struggle – the bus from Volnovakha to her village of Buhas only runs once a day and takes an hour to pass through checkpoints and the ‘contact line’. Due to hostilities, public transportation at the 'contact line’ has been disrupted.
“If you miss the bus, you either go on foot or take a taxi,” she says, with a sigh. “But my salary is not enough for a taxi.”
Tomorrow, Varvara will once more ride the bus back to work, don her protective overalls and enter the red zone where her patients will be waiting.
Antonina is one of so many who are grateful.
“Thanks to them, I can breathe,” she says. “At such difficult moments when the trouble came to our cities, I want to bend the knee to them. Now the nurses and doctors have the frontline here.”