The Home Front

December 17, 2023

Members rehabilitate Ukrainian soldiers in Staten Island.

The Home Front 1 - Nov:Dec 23 1199MAG.jpgWhen the war broke out in Ukraine almost two years ago, Russia targeted hospitals, clinics, and other health care facilities, leaving Ukraine struggling to care for civilians, wounded soldiers, and impacting the health needs of the nation as a whole.

Northwell Health, though its Center for Global Health (CGH) stepped in to provide much needed medical supplies and telemedicine platforms to Ukrainian frontline medical providers. In March 2023, through the non-profit Kind Deeds, Ukrainian soldiers who suffered severe injuries and undergone amputations were brought to Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) for Critical Rehabilitation.

“I’ve always liked working with amputees,” says Peter Leone, a Senior Physical Therapist and Union member who’s been at SIUH for 27 years. “I thought I would be doing [this] after hours on a volunteer basis, but it’s more of an actual program, like [the soldiers] are regular patients and it was a bit of a shock. I didn’t know what to expect when every patient would be an amputee.”

“I knew I was going to learn a lot,” says Melissa Collins, an 1199 Physical Therapy Assistant, whose been at SIUH for eight years. “On the chart it says one thing, but these guys are bench pressing like 125 pounds with a prosthetic leg and I’m stunned.”

“It’s inspiring, too, that these men want to get better so they can go back and fight on the frontlines; that’s their goal,” says 1199 Physical Therapist Rebecca Gonzalez, who’s worked at SIUH for 23 years. Leone agrees, “A lot of these men aren’t professional soldiers, they were conscripts or volunteers. Like a year ago, they were a dentist with a wife and kids, and now they’re a thousand miles away from their family because they got injured in a war that came out of nowhere, and the only thing they want to do is go back to fight. It’s mind-boggling that they were just “Joe Blow” on the street and now they’re GI Joe – you don’t realize how fast your life can change.”

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So far, SIUH has treated 22 Ukrainian soldiers, helping them have greater mobility and functionality with their prosthetics. It’s had its own set of rewards and challenges. “Some guys have been having issues with the prosthetics,” says Collins. Leone clarifies, “Ukraine does one style of amputation surgery that we don’t do here anymore, so trying to fit a new prosthetic [on that] can be difficult. We’ve had to get revised prosthetics to accommodate it.” Gonzalez adds, “we’ve had surgeons from Ukraine come here to shadow [surgeons] to show different techniques that will make it easier for the soldiers later on, so hopefully, it'll speed up the process [of rehab] for them.” The language barrier is another challenge. “The majority of them speak Ukrainian and not English,” remarks Gonzalez, “so, it’s a lot of gestures and facial expressions.”

During a recent session of the UN General Assembly, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited SIUH to recognize their efforts, met with some of the staff and wounded soldiers, and presented the Ukrainian Order of Merit, an award given to individuals for outstanding achievements in economics, science, culture, military, or political spheres of activity.

“It was very last-minute and chaotic cause no one knew which day he was coming,” says Gonzalez. “It was a fan girl moment,” says Collins. “I was there with my [patient] and he shook his hand. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for him to meet the President of his country, who came all that way, that was an amazing thing.” It also made them local celebrities. “Staten Island has a high Ukrainian population,” says Gonzalez, “after the visit the outpouring from the community was huge – they wanted to know how they could help.” Leone adds, “It was weird because I would be on the street or in the supermarket and someone would stop me and say, ‘I saw you on TV, I’m Ukrainian, thank you for what you’re doing.’”