Dr. Tara Stewart gets a hug from 35-year-old patient Ukrainian patient Roman Bertash the day after his surgery.

Dr. Tara Stewart gets a hug from 35-year-old patient Ukrainian patient Roman Bertash the day after his surgery.

Mission: Reconstruction

Canadian surgical team heals the graphic wounds of the Ukrainian crisis.



July 17, 2014 was a bad day for Andre Usach.

The 33-year-old soldier was hit by a shell while in a bunker at the airport in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk.

Badly wounded and knocked out, he could not be safely evacuated and had to remain there for two weeks, unconscious, without any medical treatment more complex than tourniquets provided by his comrades.

Dr. Oleh Antonyshyn, who would meet the soldier months later, fills in the details:

“When they did finally get him to a medical facility, his wounds were infected, resulting in the amputation of his leg. He (had) a very significant injury to his arm – he (couldn’t) use his arm – and in addition to that, he had a multi-fragment fracture of his jaw, with an open wound to his jaw, and all of that was infected as well.

“When the primary physicians got ahold of him, they completed the amputation and treated his wounds, but he was still battered, with a major defect of the jaw – it was split in two, from left to right. He was unable to eat and was unable to speak normally.”

Photo: Dr. Kimit Rai (centre-left) performs surgery on a patient.

The wounds, and their long-lasting effects, were the results of the unrest that began in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in the late fall of 2013.

The anti-government protests would lead to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 14, 2014, but not before heavy fighting in Maidan Nezalezhnosti – the city’s central square – that left more than 100 killed and many more wounded, to be followed by many thousands more dead and injured in the eastern part of the country as Russia became more involved in the conflict throughout the year.

The plight of the wounded would attract the attention of Canadian medical professionals, some of whom volunteered to bring their reconstructive surgery skills to Ukrainians.

The first-ever Canada Ukraine Foundation and Operation Rainbow Medical Mission arrived on Nov. 6, 2014: One neurosurgeon, four plastic surgeons (one a hand specialist, the others face and general), two plastic surgery residents, one general surgeon, three anesthesiologists, 10 nurses, and a support team of six.

While the majority were from Ontario (and one nurse from Edmonton), six of the volunteers were from B.C., including team leader Dr. Kimit Rai and Surrey videographer Gary Hanney, a retired Global TV cameraman who documented 37 surgeries performed over nearly 10 days.

Billeted at the Kiev Hilton, the team – which came with its own medical equipment – performed surgeries in the Main Clinic Military Hospital, built in 1775 (which locals like to say is older than the United States).

Dr. Rai said that most of the bullet wounds and explosives injuries were a few months old, and included broken jaws, noses and cheekbones, and scarred and distorted upper extremities.

In Andre Usach’s case, Dr. Antonyshyn used a titanium mesh and a bone graft from the patient’s thigh to put his jaw back together.

Usach wouldn’t be the first to thank a visiting doctor.

Photo: The military hospital in Kiev was built in 1775.

Ontario plastic surgeon Dr. Tara Stewart would get a big hug after doing surgery on 35-year-old patient Roman Bertash.

Via email, Stewart explains how Bertash witnessed his friend being shot by a sniper during battle, only to be shot by the same sniper while he was attempting to get his friend to safety.

The bullet ripped through the left side of Bertash’s face, destroying his orbital bone and blowing his left eye out of his socket.

His friend did not survive.

“One time he looked me in the eyes he said – and this left me humbled by his strength – ‘Don’t worry though, I got the sniper!’ After being shot, he circled around and with only one eye, and eliminated the sniper.”

There would be 35 other surgeries during this medical mission, all with unique stories.

One young man lost an eye after opening up an explosives-laden package inside a medical station in the Maidan (“Square”) during the protests.

One had such bad scar tissue under his arm that he couldn’t raise it.

Another patient who got reconstructive surgery from the Canadian team wore a bullet previously removed from his head as an amulet around his neck.

Photo: Surrey videographer Gary Hanney, on his fourth Operation Rainbow mission.

Antonyshyn said that while Ukrainian doctors are perfectly capable of performing reconstructive and cosmetic surgery, the surgical tools and materials are expensive and difficult to obtain.

The idea of a mission by the volunteers with the Canada Ukraine Foundation seemed daunting at first, so Antonyshyn sought the advice of someone more experienced.

“I didn’t know how to go about (organizing) that,” he admits.

Operation Rainbow Canada did – it has provided reconstructive/cosmetic surgery to more than 2,000 children in 20 years during missions to India, China, Mexico, Lebanon, Cambodia and other countries.

Antonyshyn says he knew of Rai’s reputation – his experience, infrastructure and knowledge in taking teams to other countries in often harsh conditions.

This time, their patients had battle wounds, scars and burns, rather than cleft plates like the children they usually treat during Operation Rainbow missions.

Despite the complexities, and “a lot of bone grafts,” Rai says the outcomes were all good, with no complications or infections.

Hanney witnessed and recorded much of the activity, and spent his afternoons in the hospital (each surgery was usually four to five hours long), and the following mornings edited the videos to send to CBC TV stations in Toronto and B.C., as well as Global BC.

Photo: Dr. Tara Stewart with 35-year-old patient Ukrainian patient Roman Bertash following his surgery.

Hanney said he was too busy working to be truly affected by what he saw in the hospital – including the interaction between Dr. Stewart and Roman Bertash, and the big smile on the patient’s face.

“It didn’t hit me until I saw the CBC footage.”

It was Hanney’s fourth mission with Operation Rainbow as a videographer.

“The patients are very grateful,” says Rai. “It’s been very emotionally charged and it feels good to help them.”

All-volunteer and non-profit Operation Rainbow relies on donations. Visit http://www.operationrainbowcanada.com. For more information about the Canada Ukraine Foundation, visit http://www.cufoundation.ca/

– with files from CBC (video a special edit of footage by Gary Hanney.)

 

OF THE 37 SURGERIES:

 

• 7 skull reconstructions

• 10 bony reconstructions of the facial skeleton

• 9 soft tissue reconstructions of the eyelids, nose and lips

• 6 upper extremity reconstructions

• 5 burn and scar revisions

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Delta character - and former White Rock resident - Pansy May Stuttard inspects a loaded revolver in the cover photo for Jim Dwight and Gary Cullen’s fascinating biography, Lord don’t want me Devil won’t take me. Contributed photo
West Coast’s ‘Pistol-packin’ Pansy’ lives on in colourful biography

Infamous Delta character ended her days in White Rock and South Surrey

A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary. March 2021. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Reports of student attendance ‘dwindling’ at Surrey schools: teachers’ association

STA president said he’s heard from staff that students might not attend in-person for 4th quarter

Vancouver resident Beryl Pye was witness to a “concerning,” spontaneous dance party that spread throughout social groups at Kitsilano Beach on April 16. (Screen grab/Beryl Pye)
VIDEO: Dance party erupts at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach to the dismay of onlookers

‘It was a complete disregard for current COVID-19 public health orders,’ says Vancouver resident Beryl Pye

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday December 8, 2020 in Ottawa. The stage is set for arguably the most important federal budget in recent memory, as the Liberal government prepares to unveil its plan for Canada’s post-pandemic recovery even as a third wave of COVID-19 rages across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Election reticence expected to temper political battle over federal budget

Opposition parties have laid out their own demands in the weeks leading up to the budget

Chilliwack Search and Rescue volunteers say that a call on April 17 on Vedder Mountain was affected by bikers who rode through the rescue site, throwing rocks onto members and the patient. (Chilliwack Search and Rescue image)
Chilliwack Search and Rescue team, and patient, sprayed with rocks and dirt during rescue

Volunteer crew speaks out after riders on Vedder Mountain show no courtesy at accident scene

File photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
One man dead after shooting in Downtown Vancouver

This is Vancouver’s fifth homicide of the year

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A syringe is loaded with COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to open up COVID vaccine registration to all B.C. residents 18+ in April

Registration does not equate to being able to book an appointment

(Black Press file photo).
Multiple stabbings at Vancouver Island bush party

Three youths hospitalized after an assault in Comox

Selina Robinson is shown in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday November 17, 2017. British Columbia’s finance minister says her professional training as a family therapist helped her develop the New Democrat government’s first budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she will table Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. finance minister to table historic pandemic-challenged deficit budget

Budget aims to take care of people during pandemic while preparing for post-COVID-19 recovery, Robinson said

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. Statistics Canada says the country's crime rate ticked up again in 2018, for a fourth year in a row, though it was still lower than it was a decade ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
CRIME STOPPERS: ‘Most wanted’ for the week of April 18

Crime Stoppers’ weekly list based on information provided by police investigators

Most Read