Hero doctor doing brain surgery as war raged around him

Published by The Daily Mail (21st March, 2022)

His first patient was a seven-year-old girl. She arrived at the hospital covered in blood with shards of shrapnel driven deep into her head and hovering on the brink of death.

The child’s family had been trying to escape the carnage that exploded around their home on the outskirts of Kyiv after the arrival of Russian forces attempting to capture the Ukrainian capital. But their car was caught up in the battle. Only her father survived unscathed.

Her older brother, a prominent footballer, and then her mother had succumbed to horrific wounds within minutes of reaching the hospital in Bucha, 15 miles west of Kyiv.

Yet amid these distressing scenes, there was a ray of light. For one of Ukraine’s top paediatric neurosurgeons had just arrived at the hospital and, after a difficult three-hour operation under a constant barrage of bombs and missiles, managed to save the girl’s life.

‘It was a very serious injury, a life-threatening injury,’ said Andriy Svyst. ‘I was happy she survived. Operating on people while under constant shelling and without the proper medical equipment is just horrendous.’

Yet as the 47-year-old freely admits, he was only there by accident after driving ten minutes from his home to help – and then becoming trapped by fighting in a town at the forefront of Russia’s assault.

The neurosurgeon ended up working with his wife, a paediatrician, in Central Irpen Hospital, Bucha, for almost two weeks, performing medical heroics as he extracted bullets from brains, shrapnel from spinal cords, and patched up victims of this hideous war.

The couple vowed not to leave without their most severely wounded child patients and ultimately escaped with 19 of them – escorting them out in two buses – just two days before the hospital was seized by the Russians.

Their story sounds like something from a Hollywood script – yet Andriy relates his tale in the same unflappable style he must have shown in his cramped operating room in a hospital lacking electricity and even water at times.

‘I am not boasting but we saved everyone whom we could save. This was a great achievement. No one believed that these people who were wounded in their head would survive but they all did,’ he said.

Andriy, a specialist at the Romodanov Neurosurgery Institute in Kyiv, and his wife Olga, 35, went to Bucha to carry out a few consultations. They took no spare clothes or provisions. Yet before leaving, the surgeon turned to his wife and said: ‘Do you understand that we are going into hell?’

They called their closest friends to ask them to adopt their children, aged five and two, should they fail to return. Soon after arriving, they realised they were trapped – as patients flooded in with terrible wounds from bombardments and battles raging outside, they made their vow to save their severely wounded child patients.

So Olga carried out triage, determining the severity of patients’ injuries, while Andriy often performed complex brain surgery in a small, ill-equipped operating theatre.

‘There were times we did not have water, so we had to pour water from the kettle to wash our hands. There were power cuts. There was constant shelling. We could hear the sound of aircraft above the building, the artillery was always working.

‘Sometimes we had to sleep on the floor of the room where we were providing surgery. At other times we could not sleep because of nearby explosions. It was like being at the front line. When you go to sleep, you do not know if you will wake up,’ said Andriy.

He worked around the clock. Only one of his patients died: a man raked by machine gun fire with a bullet lodged in his spinal cord, who took three days to reach the hospital. His trickiest case was a fireman shot in nearby Hostomel, where Russian forces landed in a failed assault on the airport in the invasion’s early hours.

He had a bullet wound in his arm and another buried in his head. Chillingly, the head wound came from Russians allegedly trying to kill injured emergency workers.

‘The colleague who bought him to the hospital said the Russians were going around and dostriliyvaly [shooting to kill],’ said Andriy.

Although the bullet was still in the fireman’s brain, his life was saved after a five-hour operation. He is now in a Kyiv hospital facing lengthy rehabilitation.

Andriy was working without his usual equipment, in a hospital where staff had to dig holes outside to use as toilets and were cooking food on open fires.

After 5pm, they used torches to preserve fuel for the hospital generators. Andriy managed to message colleagues who sent some instruments. But there was not sufficient electricity for CT scans, so he had to rely on X-rays and his own skills that left him operating ‘as if I was blind’.

Many patients spent several days trying to reach doctors – such as two sisters who took three days to arrive after being stopped by Russians at checkpoints. One of the girls died on the road but her sister, Lida, turned up ‘almost dying’ with head wounds from five pieces of shrapnel. She survived despite needing blood transfusions.

Another patient, Sasha, nine, was shot in the arm when her family’s car was targeted as they tried to escape the hell of Hostomel.

Her father died but Sasha spent two days hiding with her mother and sister in a basement, drifting in and out of consciousness, before a man with them carried her two miles through fighting to the hospital.

‘We rushed Sasha for surgery. I spoke with her mother saying maybe we would not be able to save Sasha’s arm. She replied in a calm quiet voice, “Just save my daughter’s life”. No tears, no panic,’ said Olga.

After her left arm was amputated, the girl’s photo appeared in newspapers around the world, with her innocent quote: ‘I don’t know why the Russians shot me. I hope it was an accident and they didn’t mean to hurt me.’

Olga said everyone helped at the hospital. ‘The parents were carrying water, the doctors were cleaning floors when they were not performing operations.

‘The little girls brought in with shrapnel in their head had dried blood and dirt in their hair so we would wash it with the little water that we had and later the mothers would braid their hair. We tried to make it as normal for the kids as possible.’

Five days after surgery, Sasha and 18 others were led to safety by the couple and another doctor. They were taken on two buses on a trip that took almost seven hours, at a walking pace, 16 miles through the chaos and conflict.

The most severely wounded were put on the floor. ‘We took everyone else we could – the wounded children, their parents, those who could sit and those who couldn’t,’ said Andriy. ‘The children were crying as they were scared of the sound of the fighting. We were scared also since we did not know if we would get them out alive.’

Finally, they reached a Ukrainian checkpoint where at first the troops there did not believe they could have escaped from Bucha, given the intensity of the battle.

From there, the patients were ferried to Kyiv hospitals. Sasha has travelled to Italy and is recovering from a second operation.

Andriy admits the experience was terrifying. Yet he remained unemotional as he recounted his story – until he was asked about the perpetrators of the murder and mayhem that has befallen Ukraine.

‘They are using inhumane methods. This is not a war. These are not soldiers – real soldiers don’t behave like this. They are targeting medics, they are targeting ambulances, they are killing civilians. The bodies of killed civilians are left lying in streets since they don’t allow burial or examination.

‘They do not allow people to use cars, making them walk. I have such a hatred towards them. These people should all be put behind bars.’

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