Blindness is on the rise in Ukraine. Some wounded soldiers are hopeful in rehab

22 feb., 2024

Computer programmer Bohdan Shyn had no prior military experience when he volunteered to sign up at his local conscription office in Kamianske to fight against Russian forces in Ukraine. His eyesight was already generally poor, he said, but he didn’t want that to stop him from contributing to the war effort.

“I did not want to (join) the army,” he said, but “When the full-scale (war) began, I immediately went to sign up.”

The same day he registered to fight in March 2022, his wife and their two young children fled to Poland from their hometown of Kamianske in the Dnipro region to escape the war. The office had told Shyn, who studied applied mathematics at university, to wait for a call back to start his service.

When that call came, he was initially assigned to protect civilian objects such as a power plant in Vilnohorsk, and he later trained as a sergeant and then a combat medic. It would be a full year of training before he was deployed to the war’s frontlines. “We were warned that it would be very difficult,” he said. “I went voluntarily.”

A month after he was deployed to the eastern Luhansk region, his battalion came under heavy grenade fire. “It was a sudden exit, unplanned,” Shyn, 42, recalls. He remembers the onslaught and the feeling of being inside “a kaleidoscope,” a sense of expanding darkness, he said.

Although his recollections of the attack remains blurred, his memory of regaining consciousness in an intensive care unit in Kyiv, are clear. “I couldn’t open my eyes … my jaw was still broken,” he recalled. “I couldn’t say anything.”

His left eye had gone and he had no vision at all in his right eye. “It was the biggest horror,” he said.

His wife and children, who had returned home from Poland after just a few months, became his source of support. But after his life-changing injuries, Shyn wanted to regain his independence and began the long uphill battle of physical rehabilitation.

“I wanted to learn how to navigate, to take everything (the rehabilitation centre) could give me… to return to independent living as much as possible,” he said.

After three weeks of intensive rehab and learning to adapt, Shyn could use a smartphone and a laptop and plans to return to work as a computer programmer. He added that the more he immersed himself in rehab, the more hopeful he became of a future returning to his IT work.

Shyn’s loss of eyesight is part of an alarming trajectory amid the war, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Since Russia launched its all-out invasion two years ago, the UNDP noted there has been “a trend towards an increase in visually impaired people” in Ukraine which is “inextricably linked” to the ongoing war.

“The growing number of visually impaired people is a stark reminder of the far-reaching effects of war, which go beyond immediate physical damage to long-term health consequences,” the UNDP said in December last year.

In the first seven months of 2023, blindness diagnoses in Ukraine skyrocketed to the equivalent of the total diagnoses for 2022 – more than 19,000 people, according to Ukraine’s National Institute of Health.

Oleksandr Yurchenko, 36, is one of them.

Before the war, Yurchenko – who is from Pryluky in the Chernihiv region – worked in road construction but took up arms after Moscow launched its full invasion. In November last year in the Kupyansk region, his battalion came under mortar fire.

“My eyes had gone dark,” he recalls. “Then I was evacuated. First I was taken to a hospital, but they said they did not deal with such cases. So I had to go to Kharkiv. While I was lying on a couch in a hospital in Kharkiv, I heard two doctors talking.”

It was bleak news from the doctor, who told him that he would never be able to see again. “I said to him, ‘Thank you for telling (me) the truth right away… I knew immediately that I would not see (again).” Despite his circumstances, he did not want pity.

“I told my mother that I wouldn’t call her if I heard pity… she could have killed me morally with her tears,” he said.

Yurchenko was later taken to a hospital in Ukraine’s western city of Lviv to receive medical care and begin his rehabilitation, which he started in December last year. “Now I know how to build my life,” he said.

He was skeptical at first that life without sight would be possible. “But here I’ve already learned the keyboard and started surfing the web,” he said. He also addresses the difficulties he is having in navigating space when he’s mobile. “You can get lost in two square meters and go in the wrong direction.”

Today, months after he came under attack, he dreams of being able to do simple things, like resuming the hobbies he loves such as fishing and football. “Life goes on, I have been given a chance to live,” he said, adding that he “will adapt.”

Oleg Bilyansky, the head of the National Rehabilitation Centre “Unbroken” in Lviv, told Context that it is critical that patients receive guidance and encouragement to carry out everyday tasks on their quests to return to a normal life.

“It is extremely important for a patient not to be dependent on anyone,” he said. “The work of psychologists is also extremely important. Psychologists… are among the first to enter the fight against disability.”

Bilyansky notes that it is starkly different treating people who are born blind compared to those who have lose their eyesight as adults.

“We have a completely different situation when a young person who was active and strong suddenly loses his sight,” he said.

Back home in Kamianske with his wife and sons, computer programmer Shyn dreams of returning to an full independence as soon as possible. “Right now I need some kind of support,” he said, adding that his ultimate goal is to “be the support” for others.

Photo: UNBROKEN Ukraine

Despre autor: Alexandra Stara

Avatar of Alexandra Stara

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