Treating Incurable Disease in Wartime Ukraine

Staffers at Sheptytsky Hospital in Lviv were just beginning to emerge from treating patients during the COVID-19 pandemic when Russia invaded Ukraine last February, and the situation got tougher.

“During the war, the diagnosis was harder” for people in terminal stages of disease, said Dr. Lyubov Hasyuk, a cardiologist and the hospital’s medical director.

Dr. Hasyuk said the war complicated the health conditions of some Ukrainians, especially those with incurable illnesses, many of whom receive palliative care, focused on relieving pain rather than providing a cure.

Dr. Marta Rypyhovych heads the palliative care department at the hospital, named after Ukrainian Greek Catholic Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, who died in 1944. Dr. Rypyhovych said once the war began, it took until about April for staffers to get on a regular schedule.

“We lived mechanically — woke up and worked, woke up and worked,” she said. “In addition to treating patients, we also received and distributed a lot of humanitarian aid. All this happened in parallel: caring for patients, as well as unloading, transporting, transferring and organizing aid.

“And at home, there were our families who also needed our care, and it was necessary to somehow provide for all of this.”

Many new patients arrived in a state of shock and in very bad shape, evacuated from other parts of Ukraine, fleeing missile attacks. Dr. Rypyhovych said one woman, evacuated from a damaged hospital in Kryvyi Rih, was “in a rather dreadful condition because her clothes were dirty, and she was in a diaper which had not been changed — we even could not find out how long. She was dehydrated, because nobody gave her anything to drink on the way.”

One patient with a spinal injury was evacuated from Mykolaiv, transported in the backseat of a van. “His diaper had not been changed for three days. During the trip, he had only a bun and a bottle of water,” Dr. Rypyhovych said.

“Many patients’ illnesses were exacerbated by the stressful situations they experienced, and here we diagnosed them with incurable diseases,” she said.

Some patients were referred to other hospitals if Sheptytsky staffers knew they could get better care elsewhere.

In 2022, CNEWA gave more than $27,000 to the hospital for emergency palliative care. The hospital has a 24-bed palliative care ward, and there is a waiting list, said Dr. Hasyuk. The hospital also offers patients on the waiting list home visits from the mobile palliative care teams. Patients can get a visit from a doctor, nurse or even a priest, she said.

The hospital has “about seven mobile groups and four emergency groups,” and, initially, they worked every day, without weekends or holidays, she said.

Liudmyla Shoshu, a medical assistant, works in the mobile palliative care unit as well as in the emergency department. She said the workload has increased because of the number of patients who have fled to Lviv.

“We go where they are and help emotionally and medically — put [in] an IV, carry out EKG, perform ultrasound checks … in their homes,” she said. “And we provide psychological support, of course.”

Ms. Shoshu also helped deliver aid from Sheptytsky Hospital to a hospital in Zaporizhzhia, near the front line. When the aid arrived in southeastern Ukraine, medical personnel “just cried … and said, ‘Take us with you.’ ”

“They would step aside, wipe away their tears and would come back and watch as we were unloading,” she said. Zaporizhzhia staffers felt badly that they could not even offer the visitors a cup of coffee.

“They needed our help. They all were in need,” said Ms. Shoshu. “Emotionally it was very difficult. To make the trip physically was one thing, but to see those people, to look into their eyes — that was frightening.”

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