Doctors Describe Horror of Amputating on Kids Shot by 'Monsters' and Stranded for Days in Ukraine

"The wounded are being brought to us all the time," a vascular surgeon says. "We live in fear of being bombed, we do our work, we get on with it. We have no other aim in life"

Bucha, Ukraine
People take cover from shelling in the city of Bucha, Ukraine, west of Kyiv, on March 4. Photo: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty

Through the incessant rumbling of nearby explosions, Ukrainian doctors on the outskirts of Kyiv say they have been operating on hundreds of patients — including children with "appalling injuries" in need of amputations — who've been hit in what they called "indiscriminate" attacks by Russian soldiers in the country's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

"The wounded are being brought to us all the time," Vladislav Gorbovyetz, a vascular surgeon in Bucha, Ukraine, tells PEOPLE. "We live in fear of being bombed, we do our work, we get on with it. We have no other aim in life."

In an emotional interview, Gorbovyetz described helping assess the injuries of a 9-year-old girl named Sasha, who was treated by traumatologists at Irpin Central Hospital after arriving March 4, days after her arm was nearly torn off from multiple gunshots.

"There wasn't any healthy tissue there," he says of first seeing the girl's left arm. "She had gangrene because she'd been in a basement for two days and nights with the wounds festering from the appalling injuries that these monsters inflicted on her. So we made the decision to amputate."

Sasha's family was fleeing Hostomel, Ukraine, when their car came under fire, Gorbovyetz says. The girl and other relatives survived but her stepfather, Mikhail Grabovlyak, was killed.

"The mother [Yulia Filipchuk]," he adds, "was completely out of her mind with grief" when she finally arrived at the hospital with her daughter.

Bucha, Ukraine
Ukraine. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty

Yevgeniy Ryebyov, a surgeon who operated on Sasha, tells PEOPLE the girl and her mom spent two days and nights in a cellar before they were able to seek medical attention.

"Even though the hospital was only 20 minutes away by foot, they couldn't get to us," he says. "They were surrounded by the occupying forces."

Sasha's father, Anton Fillipchuk, tells PEOPLE that Sasha's mother managed to get a brief connection to communicate with her family in the hours after they first came under attack while they were sheltering underground.

"[It] kept dropping in and out, but they were able to tell us that Sasha was badly wounded in the arm and that they were in a cellar and told us the address. But what could we do? They were surrounded by Russian forces," Anton says. "So if anyone opened a door anywhere they were shot at. They were keeping everyone hostage."

Anton says that while on the phone, they relayed medical advice to Sasha and Yulia via another doctor — "how to treat her arm, how to bandage her. There were antibiotics and painkillers. There were a lot of people down there with supplies."

"We tried absolutely everything to get them out, but that cellar was in the epicenter of a full-on battle," Anton says. Pleas from the trapped civilians didn't work, neither did spreading the word via social media.

Eventually, miraculously, Anton says that Sasha's mother wrapped them up together in a white sheet and, along with three others, "carried her out."

Says Ryebyov, one of the doctors who later treated Sasha: "Imagine your child lying next to you with her arm torn off and there's nothing you can do because you can't escape. When they brought her in, the arm was still there but it was only attached by some soft tissue. The rest was torn away: the tendons, bones, blood vessels — all smashed."

Gorbovyetz says it was the first time in 30 years of practicing medicine that he has seen gangrene on a young girl.

"She was white as a sheet. She couldn't answer questions, she was so cold. I tried to comfort her while the [others] were preparing her for the operation. I tried to tell her she'd be fine," he says. "She was completely numb. She couldn't feel any pain in her arm. She was in shock. All she could say was that she was cold and very scared, but she could barely speak."

Chernihiv, Ukraine
Russia's invasion of Ukraine. State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Sasha's operation was one of two recent amputations performed by surgeons on children at Irpin Central Hospital, the doctors say, adding that other children, ages 4 and 5, arrived with head wounds.

Speaking with PEOPLE, Gorbovyetz described the heartbreak of treating wounded children, comforting distraught parents and witnessing the "elderly crawling out of bunkers and being mowed down" in the neighborhoods surrounding the hospital.

"Our soldiers only attack other soldiers but as for [the Russians], they are indiscriminate," he says, sobbing at times during the interview. "I am a humane person; I work in a humane profession. But I want to tear them to pieces with my bare hands. Everyone here feels that way."

After surgery, the doctors say, Sasha and other patients are taken by ambulance to other medical facilities, "wherever there are free beds."

"Sasha was incredibly brave. She's more of a fighter than most men I've met. What a character. Such a strong girl," Ryebyov says.

Bucha, Ukraine
Police officers and residents stand next to a crater in front of a house damaged by recent shelling, on the outskirts Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 12. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty

Four days after she arrived, Sasha was stable enough to be transferred, the doctors say. "We congratulated her with some toys and sweets and she was smiling and cheerful," Ryebyov says. "She got up and walked to the ambulance taking her to Kyiv herself."

Anton, Sasha's father, says she subsequently moved to a hospital outside of Rome. Her mom also tells PEOPLE she has recovered.

"She's come out from under the anesthesia and is fine. I'm in Kyiv now. Am I safe? Yes. My president is living in Kyiv. We're being bombed once or twice a day, but I don't want to leave here," her dad says.

Russian attacks continue some three weeks after their forces launched a large-scale invasion on Feb. 24 — the first major land conflict in Europe in decades.

Details of the fighting change by the day, but hundreds of civilians have already been reported dead or wounded, including children. More than 3 million Ukrainians have also fled, the United Nations says.

Sasha texting friends on the beach
Anton and Yulia Fillipchuk's daughter, Sasha. Courtesy Yulia Filipchuk

"You don't know where to go, where to run, who you have to call. This is just panic," Liliya Marynchak, a 45-year-old teacher in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, told PEOPLE of the moment her city was bombed — one of numerous accounts of bombardment by the Russians.

The invasion, ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has drawn condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia.

With NATO forces massing in the region around Ukraine, various countries have also pledged aid or military support to the resistance. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for peace talks — so far unsuccessful — while urging his country to fight back.

Putin insists Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the best security interests of his country. Zelenskyy vowed not to bend.

"Nobody is going to break us, we're strong, we're Ukrainians," he told the European Union in a speech in the early days of the fighting, adding, "Life will win over death. And light will win over darkness."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

Related Articles