Tampa VA helps train Ukrainian doctors to treat combat wounds
Tampa doctors advised a delegation from Ukraine about how to rehabilitate people wounded during the country's ongoing war with Russia. Ukrainian medical specialists say they expect some soldiers and civilians will need lifelong support.
Doctors with the Department of Veterans Affairs are helping Ukrainian medical specialists improve how they care for people wounded in war as the Russian invasion of their country continues.
A delegation from Ukraine visited the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa last week for training, and plans are in the works to bring another group to VA facilities in San Antonio, Texas, this spring.
The Tampa VA was chosen because of its experience treating service members injured during decades of U.S. war in the Middle East, according to Steven Scott, the hospital's chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation. The facility has one of five polytrauma rehabilitation centers in the nation, which are designed to provide intensive care to veterans and active duty service members who experience severe injuries to more than one organ system.
“We wanted them [Ukrainian delegates] to take away some basic knowledge of these catastrophic injuries that we’ve experienced over the last 20 years and the fact that many of them do improve, many of them do get better," said Scott.
Each day of the weeklong program focused on different topics, including traumatic brain injuries, amputations and innovative therapies, among others. The group also toured the hospital's spinal cord injury unit.
There they saw robotic exoskeletons that can help veterans stand upright, machines to help with eating, and a wheelchair that can climb stairs. With the help of interpreters, the Ukrainian health workers engaged with staff and patients at the center.
Retired Master Sgt. George E. Vera earned their applause after deftly maneuvering his wheelchair through an obstacle course in a courtyard. He was paralyzed from the waist down in 2015, after he was shot four times in the legs and spine during combat in Afghanistan. His best friend did not survive the attack.
Vera shared his story with the Ukrainian visitors because many of the patients they are treating can relate.
Years after his injury, Vera became a competitive adaptive sports athlete. But he explained it took numerous surgeries, intensive rehabilitation and mental health counseling to get to where he is now and said his recovery journey isn't over.
"Every day is a new challenge, so you have to be very open-minded, very positive and have a good outlook," Vera said.
The delegation included 14 medical professionals and officials from Ukraine's Ministry of Health, Ministry of Veterans Affairs and the First Medical Association of Lviv, which has treated thousands of wounded patients at the Unbroken National Rehabilitation Center. Some of these specialists also gave presentations during the program.
"Giving them an opportunity to learn from us as well giving us a chance to learn from them with regards to some of the things that are taking place over there in the area of trauma," said Henry Huntley, director of state, local and international engagement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The experience in Ukraine is one Tampa doctors like Kevin White say is hard to imagine. As chief of the spinal cord injury unit, White says he has seen plenty of combat wounds — but that combat has never been on American soil.
"It's very different providing this level of care and right outside your door there's bombs and active war going on," said White.
And as too often happens in war, people who didn't sign up to put their lives on the line still get injured and die. Evidence shows Russia has repeatedly targeted civilians with its attacks, despite its claims otherwise.
Physical therapist Serhii Khuda treats the youngest victims at a Ukrainian children's hospital.
"It's unfortunate that in the 21st century, medical professionals, pediatricians, people who work with kids, have to come learn how to treat kids who suffer from this type of genocidal war of Russian aggression in Ukraine," Khuda said through an interpreter.
Khuda says it was hard feeling safe in Florida knowing his family was still in danger back home, but said he and his colleagues in the delegation are grateful for the support they have received from VA staff, government leaders and the Ukrainian American community members who welcomed them during their stay.
The trip to Tampa was organized in partnership with the U.S. Department of State and the Congressional Office for International Leadership (COIL). As part of the Open World exchange program, delegates first visited Washington, D.C., to meet with veteran and foreign affairs officials before moving on to Florida.
The Ukrainian National Women's League of America provided homestays and cultural programming for the group, according to COIL.
The agencies are planning a similar trip to San Antonio later this year that may focus more on exchanging ideas about the structure of the VA health care system in addition to treating trauma.
Rehabilitating the wounded will be critical to rebuilding Ukraine's economy and military in the years to come, says Jim Coker, a foreign service officer at the state department.
"I think that's a very important thing when you talk about the bigger context of Ukraine remaining a free, viable state that controls its own sovereign territory," he said.
Ukrainian delegates say they're focused on ending this war. But a doctor named Andrii says he knows the hardships will continue long after the fighting stops. He also used an interpreter and asked us not to use his last name because he treats soldiers.
"In the future it's already obvious that we will have so many people, both civilians and military personnel, who will need lifelong rehabilitation, lifelong support from medical personnel, from medical institutions, also from the state," Andrii said in Ukrainian. "The state will have to take care of them for 20 years, for 30 years — this is the challenge that we see already."
The training they received in Tampa could help prepare them for that.
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