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‘War in the operating room’: Ukrainian eye surgeons to learn at University of Calgary

Some scars can’t be hidden.

It’s why Dr. Olga Denysiuk is coming to Canada from the Ukraine war zone to learn more about saving and rebuilding smashed and damaged eyes.

“I’m doing everything I can to save their eyesight, to save their face,” Denysiuk said in a recent interview from her home in Kyiv.

“You can hide the scars under clothing. You can have a prosthesis for your leg or your arm. But the face stays there, and (patients) feel very insecure about it.”

Denysiuk, 36, is an eye surgeon, working to save the lives of soldiers and civilians in Ukraine after it was invaded more than two years ago by Russia.

She regularly travels close to the front lines of the war to treat patients.

“The trauma is sometimes excruciating,” she said.

“When you’re in a surgery room and you’re doing it like a robot, and then you’re seeing those people …missing their arms and legs, it’s difficult.

“I’m fighting my war in the operating room.”

Ukraine is doubly cursed with rising numbers of eye and eyelid injuries and too few specialists to care for them.

As a result, the University of Calgary is teaming up with the Canadian Ophthalmological Society Foundation’s Eyes on Ukraine initiative.

The fellowship program is to give Canadian doctors a window into what Ukraine needs to save lives, and in return give their Ukrainian counterparts tools and training to do more back home.

It starts this fall with Denysiuk and professor Dr. Oksana Petrenko. They are to spend four months at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine for advanced training on saving and rehabilitating eyes and eyelids.

They then return to Ukraine for four months to apply the new techniques under the direction of the University of Calgary’s Dr. Karim Punja.

After that, they all return to Calgary for four more months of followup work.

“I am hoping to learn a different approach and see how people work and see how the system works,” said Denysiuk.

“Hopefully, (I can) bring that to Ukraine and start changing our system to have it like a fellowship, and residency and specialties.”

She said the more help she can give colleagues on the front lines, the more eyes that can be saved.

“They do an amazing job. But … we do get very complicated reconstructions,” Denysiuk said.

Punja said he expects to be learning as much as he will be teaching.

“The surgical training is far more impactful by joining my students and their learners in Ukraine,” he said.

“It will also allow me to better understand the horrific reality of their situation and how best to garner additional support in terms of capital equipment, surgical supplies, and learning resources.”

Michael Kryshtalskyj, a Calgary surgeon and co-founder of Eyes on Ukraine, said spreading the knowledge on eye care is critical.

“The need for specialized care in treating complex blast injuries will persist for decades,” Kryshtalskyj said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 1, 2024.

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