Growing up in eastern Ukraine, Mykola Nyzhnykovskyi was a typical boy: curious, adventurous, and at times a bit goofy. But last August, the 11 year-old’s curiosity got the better of him and changed his life forever.
Mykola, his little brother and a few friends were playing in a field that has been used as an artillery range since war came to eastern Ukraine nearly two years ago. The boys found an undetonated rocket-propelled grenade in their village of Volodarske, Donetsk oblast.
“We put it in the middle of the road and then a friend of mine pushed me towards it. I stepped on it and it exploded,” Mykola recounted from a bed in the Main Military Hospital in Kyiv.
His mother, Alla, heard the explosion. “I ran out into the street and saw pieces of flesh and skin and bones all around. Everything was covered in blood. I was praying to God he would survive.”
Doctors saved Mykola’s life but he lost both legs and his right arm. He also suffered serious internal injuries and facial and cranial trauma. He was missing a piece of his skull.
But what he didn’t know for months was that the blast killed his four-year-old brother Danyo. His mother kept that a secret, fearing the news would devastate him.
For two months, Mykola lay in a hospital bed, his Ukrainian doctors lacking the expertise and the tools to help him fully heal. His future looked bleak — that is until a Canadian medical mission to Ukraine got word of his situation.
“The story was horrifying and his injuries were devastating,” Dr. Oleh Antonyshyn said in an interview with CTV’s W5.
Dr. Antonyshyn is the lead surgeon and organizer of a series of medical missions to Ukraine. A proud Canadian of Ukrainian heritage, he headed to Ukraine in late October for a third sojourn in a little more than a year, leading a team of 22 medical professionals — surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses and an occupational therapist — all volunteers.
Their week-long mission, the third organized by the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, was funded by the Canadian government to the tune of $500,000. The money was used to operate on Ukrainian soldiers wounded in the ongoing war with Russian soldiers and separatists. Another half million dollars have been earmarked for a mission in February.
In the week that W5 was in Kyiv last October, three operating tables were going non-stop, repairing the horrific wounds to the faces, skulls and arms of 38 former soldiers.
And while every soldier’s story is heart wrenching, it was Mykola’s tragedy that captured the hearts and minds of every Canadian volunteer.
At first, Dr. Antonyshyn wasn’t sure the Ukrainian army would allow Mykola into a military hospital, even for an assessment. It was against the rules. But the Canadians were accredited to perform surgery only at the military hospital. Eventually, common sense prevailed and the army agreed to admit a child.
The Canadian team felt they had to help however they could. Yet while the doctors weren’t able to address Mykola’s amputated limbs, they knew they could deal with the wounds to his face and skull.
As Mykola was being prepped for surgery, he was visibly scared. That is until he met Dr. Adrian Hawaleshka, an anesthesiologist from Winnipeg.
“I’m lucky that I give a fair amount of anesthetics to kids. And kids are really interesting. You can joke around with them more than you think.
“I knew I was going to give him an anesthetic so I brought in this little solution that smells like raspberries . . . and I promised that it (the gas) would smell like raspberries. I told him when I put the mask down it’s no longer going to smell like raspberries. It’s going to start smelling like farts. And every kid universally, no matter what culture, they know what that is and they think it’s funny.”
Dr. Hawaleska was right: Mykola laughed.
The Canadian surgeons removed a piece of shrapnel from his chin, rebuilt his lower lip, removed some scars on his face and put a titanium mesh screen onto his skull.
Five weeks later and an ocean away, Mykola’s hopes took a big leap forward. Word of his plight came to the attention of Dr. Reggie Hamdy, an orthopedic surgeon at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Montreal, and he offered to help.
It was an offer beyond anything Mykola and his mom could have ever dreamed. His lingering medical issues are being taken care of and he’ll receive prosthetic limbs which will dramatically improve his life. These medical costs are being covered by the Shriners Hospital.
“A triple amputee is quite severe,” Dr. Hamdy said. “However I can say with technologies that we have now and the prosthesis, he will be able to run, to play hockey. He will be almost a normal child.”
The Canada-Ukraine Foundation has set up a “Mykola Fund” to cover travel, accommodation and other medical treatments not sponsored by Shriners.
For the Canadian doctors in Montreal and those who volunteered in Ukraine, there could be no greater accomplishment than to give this boy from a war ravaged country a chance to run and play again. But first, Mykola faces a long road to recovery.