Svitlana Zinko never imagined that with a simple fumble down the stairs she would end up in a hospital bed in New York City, 5,000 miles from her home in Ukraine, with her life in the hands of a Russian surgeon.
The 53-year-old teacher was at home with her husband and two cats in Ivano-Frankivsk, a western Ukrainian town near Lviv, when an air raid siren went off around midnight. In a rush to get to the bomb shelter, she tripped down the stairs and broke her collarbone – an injury that would eventually cause a painful, life-threatening infection to spread through her body.
“We were both shocked,” Svitlana told The Daily Beast in an interview through a translator, recalling that night on June 17. “My husband called an ambulance but they told us this fracture is not important as they have many other calls. We waited until 6am to be taken to hospital.”
When she finally reached the hospital, Ukrainian doctors scheduled Svitlana for surgery that included implanting a plate to stabilize her collarbone. It wasn’t long after the surgery that Svitlana realized something was seriously wrong: the site of the incision began to ooze pus and she developed severe back pain that persisted even after a second surgery was performed to replace the plate in her collarbone. to delete.
After months of mixed diagnoses, MRI tests and excruciating pain, Zinko’s daughter Liliia – who lives in New York City – finally managed to make arrangements for her parents to move to the US, hoping her mother could find a solution for her. could find. serious medical crisis in an American hospital.
“She never wanted to leave Ukraine,” Liliia told The Daily Beast, but she “decided after the 7th MRI that if the diagnosis was bad, we had to move now…so on September 28 I ordered a ticket for her and my father , and on October 13 they left for the US – also with the cats.”
By the time Svitlana reached Dr. Garrett Leonard, an orthopedic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, had the infection from her collarbone surgery spread to her spine and was in terrible shape.
“I saw X-rays that showed significant destruction of one of the bones in her spine… we saw that the infection was extremely aggressive,” Leonard told The Daily Beast. “As a result, she was at high risk of paralysis. Even an untreated infection can be a cause of death. She could have been paralyzed at any moment, and she could have become septic at any moment from her infection.”
Just days after her first appointment at Lenox Hill on Dec. 2, Svitlana was scheduled for a two-part surgery under Leonard’s direction, with the goal of clearing as much of the infection in her back as possible and taking the pressure off her spinal cord. , and stabilizing her spine. However, Leonard needed help to access the damaged parts of Svitlana’s spine as safely as possible.
“She was already looking for a dress for her funeral. So we’re really grateful.”
— Svitlana’s son-in-law, Vitali Tryhubenko
That’s where Russian general surgeon Dr. Sergei Dolgopolov came into view.
“Dr. Leonard contacted me and asked me for help in a difficult case,” says Dolgopolov, who trained in a military hospital in Moscow before moving to the US in 1993. aggression and everything it does to Ukraine. That’s the normal response: helping to contribute a little bit. I felt like I could at least do something.”
Dolgopolov became part of a multinational team of doctors, including a Ukrainian surgical tech, who treated Svitlana.
The Russian surgeon was ordered to make an incision between Svitlana’s ribs, removing her organs from the way to allow Leonard access to Svitlana’s spine – which required the general surgeon to deflate and later inflate one of her lungs – and all while making sure her organs don’t get hurt in the process. Leonard would then scrape away the infection by removing the damaged tissue and bones and stabilizing the spine with metal reinforcements. He would then perform a separate, second surgery to further support her spine with a metal rod and screws.
Both surgeries were performed flawlessly, much to the gratitude of Svitlana, who has since regained her mobility and now lives her life pain-free thanks to the efforts of Leonard and Dolgopolov. “I really appreciate all the doctors in New York who helped me, because the situation in Ukraine is still serious and complicated,” she said.
For Dolgopolov, who worked in Moscow during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the experience of Svitlana’s treatment was a reminder that “history goes in circles.” He recalled leaving Moscow all those years ago after “having to tell patients to bring their own equipment, such as gauze. You have no idea, it was that bad… I felt like the country was completely falling apart and it would never recover or get better.”
The surgeon, who still has family in Russia, told The Daily Beast that the invasion of Ukraine made him feel “that I didn’t know my country, I didn’t know my people. That was my feeling after a year of war… especially since I grew up with this myth of Soviet liberators, unfortunately this myth disappears completely when you hear about all these horrific acts of rape and murder of civilians.”
“I hope this misery ends soon,” he added. “This is probably all I want, for the war to be stopped and for people to stop being killed and dying. That’s all I think about.”
For Leonard, however, Svitlana’s story offers a glimmer of hope. “When I was in the operating room, I was struck by how remarkable it was,” he said. “There is a terrible war going on between Russia and Ukraine, but in that operating theater are people from those countries working to cure a life-threatening infection. We had dr. Dolgopolov, we had a Ukrainian surgical technician there. I am lucky to be able to work with such people in the hospital.”
Despite the trauma of the war, Svitlana and her family are only grateful to the doctors in New York who gave her life back, including Dolgopolov, who was “always positive and smiling,” the schoolteacher said.
“She was already looking for a dress for her funeral. So we are very grateful,” Svitlana’s son-in-law, Vitali Tryhubenko, told The Daily Beast.
Vitali – who left Ukraine in the early months of the war, a few days after his wife and daughter fled – explained that a Russian friend of his had collected his family from the airport when they first arrived in the US, and even they have money to make ends meet.
For now, Svitlana is far from the horrors of war. She enjoys walks in Central Park, visiting historic churches in the city and spending time with her 5-year-old granddaughter Alice.
Still, the Ukraine family has in mind “every day when we wake up. I have no friends who are not on the front lines,” Vitali said. “Every family has lost something there: a house, a neighbor, a mother. It’s been a whole year. Everyone has sacrificed a lot. So in the end we have to win. We’ve already lost so many people. We cannot lose.”