Rehabilitating Ukraine's War Wounded: MSF physiotherapy and mental health project

Rehabilitating Ukraine's War Wounded: MSF physiotherapy and mental health project

With Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine has now become the most heavily mined country in the world; a title that no nation wants to hold the record for. The State Emergency Service of Ukraine estimates that approximately 30 per cent of its territory (170,000 square kilometers) may be contaminated with landmines and unexploded ordnances.

Hospitals have seen a significant influx of patients, particularly in the eastern and southern regions, of Donetsk, Kherson, and Kharkiv, where there is active fighting and the spread of landmines is most prevalent. In these hospitals, initial emergency care is provided and patients are stabilised, and if necessary, surgical interventions are performed. To alleviate the strain on these healthcare facilities, patients are subsequently transported to hospitals in relatively secure regions, like Kyiv and Vinnytsia for further treatment and rehabilitation.

The surge in patients with amputations and complex injuries has created a critical need for medical specialists – particularly physiotherapists – to provide post-operative rehabilitation care. According to the Ministry of Social Policy, since the escalation of the war in February 2022, the number of Ukrainians with disabilities has increased by 300,000, and the demand for physiotherapists with experience in treating acute or chronic injuries has doubled.

Physiotherapy treatment

In response to this need, in mid 2022, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) initiated a project focused on early rehabilitation of war-wounded patients at hospitals in Vinnytsia and Kyiv, where the patients are evacuated from the most conflict-affected areas of Ukraine. Collaborating with the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Internal Affairs, MSF medical teams started implementing new and evidence-based approaches to rehabilitation to support the recovery of injured patients.

“Physio is not well developed in Ukraine. There are not enough physiotherapists,” says Viktoriia Vantsarovska, a physiotherapist who joined MSF a year ago. “The injuries we are treating are amputations, multiple traumas, and nerve injuries. At first it was very difficult to mentally accept what I was seeing. I have never encountered such war-related traumas before.”

To support the training and capacity building of local medical staff and university students, MSF invited physiotherapists with prior experience in international armed conflicts, such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Gaza and Sudan, to share experiences about the latest techniques in physiotherapy. MSF also conducted dozens of trainings to teach evidence-based and progressive methods of physical rehabilitation.

“The international staff helped us a lot with their teaching and providing us with knowledge. We have learnt how to provide treatment to the patients stump in preparation for a prosthetic,” continued Viktoriia.

MSF’s physiotherapy team began employing a range of techniques with patients, such as stretches and exercises using equipment such as parallel bars, fitness balls, and Swedish Wall. Many patients were also experiencing acute and chronic pain as a result of damage to nerve endings in the affected

limbs. A method of electrical stimulation called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) was implemented to alleviate this and provide patients with symptomatic pain relief.

“We explain to our patients that ‘if you follow our exercises, you will be able to become independent again’. When you see progress and the patients not giving up, you want to continue to help them,” says Viktoriia. “When they come back wearing at prothesis I realise that my job is not in vain and I become really happy.”

Since the rehabilitation project commenced, MSF has provided more than 19,000 physiotherapy sessions with 668 patients. One of these patients is Andrii, who has been receiving treatment at the hospital in Vinnytsia.

“I stepped on a landmine in Donetsk region in July and since then I’ve had six surgeries. My right leg was amputated, and I also have nerve damage in my left arm. The physiotherapists always try new activities and approaches to help me. I would be immobilised without physio,” says Andrii.

Psychological support

As part of the rehabilitation project, MSF also provides patients with psychological care. The counselling services help patients process their traumatic experiences, gain motivation to maintain their physiotherapy, and better accept and adapt to their new body and living conditions. A total of 2,638 psychological sessions have been provided to 508 patients, as well as 110 psycho-social group activities.

One particularly innovative component of the psychological services provided to amputee patients involves a "mirroring" exercise, which is performed by putting a mirror between their surviving leg and stump. The patient sees their leg in the reflection of the mirror and moves it; creating the perception that they are moving both limbs.

During this time, MSF psychologist supports the person, engaging in discussions about the perception of movements, and the patient shares their fears and worries about the new body. This exercise contributes to the acceptance of the prosthesis in the future, with the psychologist playing an essential role. The mirroring exercise is also used to address phantom pains in the missing limb, whereby the patient can address the imaginary pain by rubbing or moving the existing limb whilst looking at the mirror.

The process of treatment and rehabilitation can be quite lengthy, and some patients with serious injuries remain in the hospital for many months. Psychosocial activities and a change of environment are therefore essential for their mental health. MSF’s psychologist and social worker organise recreational trips to the venues such as the zoo and cinema, or take the patients on fishing trips. In addition, there are regular excursions to the prosthetic and orthopaedic enterprise, where doctors explain the types of prostheses available and how to choose them correctly.

For those patients whose health condition do not allow such trips, MSF has been bringing the activities to them. Art activities are organised on a weekly basis, and special events such as barbeques, and visits from trainers with horses and dogs are set up in the hospital gardens.

These activities not only allow patients to have some respite, but also builds their confidence in showing them that they are still capable of doing many of the things they did before they were injured.

What’s next?

After setting up the rehabilitation facilities and services in Vinnytsia and Kyiv, and providing 18 months of patient care and capacity building of staff, in December 2023, MSF handed over these projects to Mehad, a French NGO managing health and development projects. All the Ukrainian health specialists – including the physiotherapists and psychologists – are being retained by Mehad, and MSF has donated the medical and office equipment, as well as two vehicles to support the continuation of the rehabilitation activities.

With the ongoing war in Ukraine, injuries from landmines, explosions and shelling are still constant, and the need for rehabilitation services remains high. MSF is continuing to support the Ministry of Health by providing physiotherapy training and technical support to hospitals in Zhytomyr region, as well implementing a new rehabilitation project with war-wounded patients in Cherkasy.

As Cherkasy sits in the centre of Ukraine and is quite close to the frontline, many of the patients arrive within the first days of being injured. MSF commences rehabilitation shortly after surgery or limb amputation, which is crucial to the recovery process. If physiotherapy is delayed, joints can become immobilised, which can make the use of prosthetics impossible in the future.

“Patients with war-related trauma receive early and comprehensive treatment from our multidisciplinary team that provides physiotherapy, mental health support, and nursing care,” says Katerina Serbina, MSF project coordinator for Cherkasy and Zhytomyr. “We work in close partnership with the Ministry of Health (MoH), who are very dynamic, but also facing a huge challenge because of the war. Our team supports the MoH staff by building their capacity, so that MSF presence has an added value to the whole system of rehabilitative care in the country.”

Hannah Hoexter Senior Press Officer, MSF UK




About MSF UK

This is the press room for MSF UK - the UK office of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters and exclusion from healthcare. MSF offers assistance to people based on need, irrespective of race, religion, gender or political affiliation.

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