February 8, 2023

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Surgeons in Ukraine struggle to operate when the power goes out

Kyiv, Ukraine — Surgeons had made the long incision down the center of the child’s chest, severing the sternum to spread the rib cage and reach the heart, when the lights went out at the Heart Institute in Kyiv.

On Wednesday night, generators were turned on to keep life support machines running as nurses and surgical assistants held flashlights over the operating table and guided surgeons through cutting and slicing to save a life in the most difficult of conditions.

“There was a complete power outage in the operating room,” said Borys Todurov, director of the institute, who posted a video of the procedure online to illustrate the doctors’ difficulties.

“So far we’ve managed on our own,” he says. “But every hour gets harder. There has been no water for several hours. We continue to only perform emergency surgeries.”

Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid are taking a growing toll on the nation as the damage mounts. After each strike, repairs become more difficult, power outages can last longer, and the risk to the population increases.

The scene at Kiev hospital mirrors those at medical facilities across the country, a vivid illustration of the cascading toll Russia’s attacks on civilians are taking far from the front lines.

Two kidney transplants were being performed at the Cherkassy regional cancer center in central Ukraine when the lights went out, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine’s president’s office, said via messaging app Telegram. The generators were turned on and the transplants were successful, he said.

“Ukrainian doctors are invincible!” he said.

In the central city of Dnipro, an aviation and industrial hub of around a million people, the strikes caused Mechnikov Hospital to lose power, a first since the war began, doctors said.

“We’ve been preparing for this moment for two years,” said one doctor, who requested anonymity because the doctor wasn’t authorized to speak to the news media.

The hospital’s intensive care unit and operating rooms are working on generators, the doctor added, but the living quarters are without power.

Christopher Stokes, MSF Ukraine director, said the infrastructure strikes would put “millions of civilians at risk”. They can feed a vicious circle in which people who live without heating and clean water are more likely to need medical care, but that care itself is more difficult to obtain.

“Power outages and water disruptions will also affect people’s access to healthcare as hospitals and health centers struggle to function,” he said.

At the Kiev hospital, the surgeons put on headlamps and continued to work in the dark. The operation was a success, said Mr. Todurov.

“Thanks to all employees for their well-coordinated and selfless work,” he said. “In this unusual situation, we have not lost a single patient.”

Marc Santora reported from Kyiv and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Dnipro, Ukraine. Natalia Yermak contributed to reporting from Dnipro.