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Roman's Story

Roman-in-hospitalWhen Victoryia Kapustynska told me that no one expected Roman to live, I wasn’t surprised. The graphic images she showed me on her phone, of a seven-year-old boy burned over more than 50% of his body and hit with glass and shrapnel, were beyond sickening. I left the Children’s Hospital in Lviv, after visiting the new rehabilitation wing built to deal with the injuries of war, with a promise that Wellspring would help Roman Oleksiv as he continued his long road to recovery. What I didn’t know was, the day that so badly injured Roman and took his mother’s life, also had a deeply profound effect on mine.

With a connection established to Roman’s father Yaraslav, I asked him to send me as much information about Roman, his injuries and subsequent treatment as he could. I then sent these documents to my friend Andriy for translation. As I sat reading through the pages of translated notes, I came to a sentence that made the hairs on my arms bristle, as I read and re-read it. On July 14th 2022, Roman and his mother Halyna were visiting his grandparents in Vinnytsia for a doctor appointment. Yaraslav had stayed home in Lviv when at about 11 o’clock he lost connection with them. In the hours that followed, as the country learned Vinnytsia had been hit by three Russian cruise missiles, Yaraslav drove the six hours from Lviv to the Vinnytsia Regional Hospital in panic, not knowing what he would find.

Burned-out-carOn arrival he learned Roman was burned over 50% of his body, with another 35% of his body burned internally. In some places the burns were so deep they were through to the bone and his face, upper and lower limbs and airways were all affected. Little Roman also had a fracture of his left arm and several shell fragments in his skull. The burns on Roman’s back were fourth degree and he was not expected to live with such severe injuries. On top of all that, his mother was still missing.

As Yaraslav waited, his son’s life hanging in the balance, the fate of Halyna his wife was unknown for three days until DNA testing confirmed she had been killed in the attack that also took the lives of the doctor and 25 other people while injuring dozens more.

Roman was transported to the First Medical Unit of Lviv, the largest burn clinic in western Ukraine, and then to St. Nicholas Children’s Hospital arriving in critical condition, where the intensive care team and anesthesiologists fought to save his life. Lesya Strilka, Roman’s burn surgeon didn’t think the boy would survive, let alone make the journey abroad to a burn clinic with the resources to properly treat him. Roman had other ideas though, and within a few weeks his condition was stabilized enough that he was able to make the journey to the University Clinic of Dresden, one of the largest burn clinics in Germany. A group of German paramedics came to Lviv to facilitate transport, which was provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Health and Doctors Without Borders (Medicine Sans Frontieres).

In Dresden Roman underwent as many as three surgeries per week to remove the burned tissues, the glass and missile fragments from his leg and receive numerous skin grafts and plastic surgery. He had his eardrum replaced as every day the German doctors fought to keep him alive. And then, for the first time since his injury, he opened his eyes and soon after took his first steps in front of his father Yaraslav. The boy who had been given no chance of living was alive, and the father who had lost his wife had his son back.

Roman returned to Ukraine after a year to continue his treatment at Unbroken Kids in his hometown of Lviv. He has to wear a special compression mask to protect the skin grafts which must be constantly polished so scar tissue doesn’t grow, and it’s necessary for Roman to keep his mobility and avoid pain as he is still constantly growing. The clinic is fund raising to purchase the specific laser device that can perform the treatment, as they don’t currently have one in Ukraine. So, at the present time Roman is still traveling back to Germany for treatments and surgeries. He has resumed his schooling and even attended a dance recently. Then there are his dreams of playing the accordion like his father, and he plans to play a concert for his doctors when he is finished with his lessons and is fully proficient.

Roman-recoveringAs I read Yaroslav’s notes about this incredible young man, his courage and fighting spirit, I was overcome with emotion from the set of circumstances that were at play. At the exact moment Roman was so badly injured in the missile strike that hit Vinnytsia, I was just two hours away photographing combine harvesters and grain trucks. With the Russians blockading the ports at that time, it was a big story that my partner Kiran Ridley and I thought we needed to cover. We had decided earlier that morning to stop in Vinnytsia for lunch, and had we not stopped for the harvesters we would have been in the city when it was hit. Instead we arrived shortly after to the still burning ruins, legions of fire trucks, emergency workers and military personal, backs bent to the daunting task of clearing the destruction. Mercifully the dead and wounded had mostly been evacuated, but the magnitude of the devastation was truly shocking.

As was the thought about now being connected to Roman. How in the world does an Englishman living in America be standing in the still burning remains of the missile attack that so badly injured a young Ukrainian boy, and then be introduced to him thirteen months later? Five months into the conflict, more than 5,000 children had already been treated for the injuries of war, so Victoryia could have introduced us to many different children. Also, if it hadn’t been for Kiran taking an assignment in early 2022 with a little girl named Sophia at the hospital we couldn’t have had the connections with Viktoria.

Currently we are helping Yaroslav with his living expenses, and I need to take a moment to ask for your assistance to continue aiding him as Roman travels back and forth constantly to Germany for surgeries. We also have other children in Ukraine we need to help, and we can only do that with your donations.

So many thanks in advance and please stay in contact so we can share Roman’s progress.

For the Children,
Neale Bayly