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Ukrainian doctors train for live-saving surgery in the U.S.


A surgeon in Boston is helping train Ukrainian doctors to perform complicated procedures, like heart surgery and organ transplants. Since the war started, it's been harder for people in Ukraine to get transplants. Daniel Ackerman reports.

DANIEL ACKERMAN: Dr. Serguei Melnitchouk practices heart and lung surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. But he grew up in Ukraine, and he traveled back there this past April during the chaotic early days of the Russian invasion. He went to teach trauma care at three local hospitals, where beds were filling up with wounded people. Melnitchouk saw roadsides littered with burnt-out tanks and trees with their canopies blown away by missiles.

SERGUEI MELNITCHOUK: And that's your country where you grew up, and you can't recognize it. It was hurting my heart. It was painful.

ACKERMAN: He wanted to do more to help. And at the hospitals he visited, he kept getting the same question.

MELNITCHOUK: In all three hospitals, they were asking about transplants. And so I was like, why are you so interested in transplants? You are in times of war.

ACKERMAN: He learned that Ukraine didn't have a full-service organ transplant center. Previously, if a patient needed a new set of lungs, the government would send them abroad. But neighboring countries have made it harder for foreigners to get transplants. Plus, the procedure can cost more than $100,000. And the war has slashed Ukraine's health care budget.

OKSANA DMITRIEVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ACKERMAN: Oksana Dmitrieva is a member of Parliament in Ukraine and a former doctor. She says many doctors in the country are working without pay. Since the war started, the government hasn't been able to send transplant patients abroad. Some with end-stage lung disease are dying. So when Dmitrieva met Melnitchouk during his April visit to Ukraine, they hatched a plan.

DMITRIEVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ACKERMAN: Ukraine would send a team of 13 doctors to Boston. Melnitchouk would spend three months training them on lung and heart transplants.

MELNITCHOUK: Our original plan was that they would just rent Airbnb, and they would live in apartments and be close to the hospital. But the Ministry of Health is pretty broke right now.

ACKERMAN: So instead, Boston-area families volunteered to house the doctors. Vitalii Sokolov, a thoracic surgeon from Kyiv, says his host family insists on doing all the cooking.

VITALII SOKOLOV: I propose several time, can I help you in any way? Can I go to the grocery store? No, no, no, no. I would say that I have another mother and father in the States.

ACKERMAN: But Sokolov wakes at 5 each morning to call his own family back in war-torn Kyiv to make sure they have electricity and heat. Then he heads into the hospital. There's no transplant today. Instead, the patient on the operating table needs a leaky heart valve repaired. But it's still a chance for Melnitchouk to share his surgical techniques. Wearing a blue gown, he leans over the patient, picks up a knife and cuts into the space between two ribs.


ACKERMAN: Half a dozen technicians surround him, handing out surgical instruments and monitoring the patient for blood clotting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ACT is 300 and climbing. Orange is on.

ACKERMAN: Melnitchouk has conducted this medical orchestra hundreds of times before. But today the procedure sounds a bit different.

MELNITCHOUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ACKERMAN: As Sokolov and another Ukrainian doctor look on, Melnitchouk explains his technique in Ukrainian.

MELNITCHOUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ACKERMAN: Outside the operating room, he says it means a lot to speak his native language at work.

MELNITCHOUK: Well, this was actually first time in my life to speak Ukrainian. It's - I'm actually very, very happy and very grateful that I had this chance to somehow give back something to my country.

ACKERMAN: In December, the 13 visiting doctors will return to Kyiv, hoping to bring a brighter future for Ukraine's transplant patients, even in dark times.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Ackerman in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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