Dr. Yakov Gradinar already had his own American story. From the west of Ukraine, he emigrated to the US in the 2000s with training as an orthopedic surgeon. While the rest of his family remained at home, Gradinar worked and raised a family in Minneapolis– one of the US’ most thriving Ukrainian diaspora cities. Going by Jacob for his American patients, he specialised in unusual prosthetics, even developing a new technological breakthrough in the field for survivors of frostbite in Minnesota’s winters. Gradinar would occasionally make the local news for his prosthetics work, with stories like the bringing of amputees from war-torn African countries to be fitted with proper limbs at his US clinic.
But then the full-scale war came to his own country earlier this year. In February, Gradinar contended with the same dilemma with which Ukrainians living and working all over the world were facing: to go home and help? Or to be more effective forming organisations abroad, collecting money and supplies and keeping awareness in the global public eye?
Of course, not all of these diasporic Ukrainians have top-level expertise as prosthetics doctors, either– a fact that made the choice that much more complicated for Dr. Gradinar. The indiscriminate bombing of civilians was soon apparent. Prosthetics would now be in the highest demand—not just for soldiers, but for children, the elderly, ordinary men and women.
Ultimately Gradinar and his business partner, Yuri Arashydze of the Protez Project, decided that working for these victims of war from the US was the best strategy. From donated top-level international prosthetics to teams of caregivers like psychologists and dentists working for free, they decided that bringing Ukrainian survivors to the US for a few weeks respite would be the most effective endeavour.
From these initial ideas in their founding of Prosthetics for Ukrainians, the project has taken off far beyond the group’s initial expectations. From international donations in even the smallest amounts to the putting up soldiers and civilians in doctors’ own homes in Minneapolis, the last eight months have been powerful ones for Gradinar and his team.
I spoke with Dr. Gradinar at his home in Minneapolis. At the end of our conversation, one of the visiting soldier-amputees, in the US for the first time, unexpectedly joined us for a few translated words on his own experience.
KLM: How did this all begin?
YG: Always my heart was to help people who don’t have prosthetics. That’s my passion. So when war began this year, Yuri Arashydze, the founder of Protez Project, we founded it together.
Together we started to think: okay, what we can do in this war? We are watching news. But that doesn’t help. It just gets more anxious. We need something that we are helping, versus sitting on a sofa and just talking about how bad it is. We searched, what will be best way: to go to Ukraine, or do here?
We decided to do it here for a few reasons. First, we can get good quality prosthetic, access to clinical people here in the United States, good components. Second, we can get these people three or four weeks of little vacation from Ukraine, the patients. And third, we’re get public outside Ukraine to see that behind those bombed buildings, there are real people who are injured.
We started to connect with the health department of Ukraine, the defense department. We even connected to the president’s wife, Olena Zelensky’s office, because she’s helping kids.
Next step, we searched how we can get them to US. Office of Ambassador Markarova’s office connected us with DHS, Department of Homeland Security in US. They sent us very nice email: we see your mission, we will work with you.
First we invited five soldiers, and one of soldier’s wife, who lost both legs.
In second group is nine-year-old boy, his name is Artyom. They ran to Zhytomyr. Their house was hit with a strike, kids were outside. Two kids, Artyom and his brother, and father. Father shielded Artyom, Artyom hugged him and lost his left hand, but survived. Dad and brother died.
Another boy, eleven-year-old Sasha. He was on a playground in Mariupol when an explosion happened. He lost his leg.
Another couple, from Bucha. Husband lost his hand when he was trying to find and help people. His friend and wife tried to drive him to the hospital. But it was so many Russians shooting that he said: no, go back, I will walk. He left the car. Shooting was so powerful, they killed his friend in the car. Tatiana, also still in the car, got shot in both legs. Was laying on the ground for nine hours pretending she’s dead so she doesn’t get killed. Because she heard voices from roof close by. They were counting, reporting how many they had killed.
Husband arrived to the hospital. Without light, they performed amputation on him. Together they got to Italy. But in Italy they were just getting cosmetic prosthetics. We got them here for fitting.
Each story– when we started to read, you cannot read more than two or three because you start crying.
But I feel that I’m helping now. I’m not hopeless. I’m making a difference for these Ukrainians. And I feel that it’s part of Ukrainian community. Here in the United States, in Minneapolis, and in Ukraine itself. We are a global community that’s fighting. Each one doing what we can.
Let me check. Today we have 415 people applied.
KLM: Can you tell me a little bit about prosthetics and technology? You’ve had these guys walking within a month, and running on tracks.
YG: There is a lot happening from soldiers’ side. Because they are tough. They push and push, and push me.
KLM: And then the children, the civilians. They’re not soldiers. You’re hearing the stories. You’re eye-to-eye with people, you’re helping them and they’re feeling better, but it’s also tragedy. A lot of physical pain involved, too. It must be very complex emotions.
YG: We made our program that we have occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists. We even have dentists in our team who offer free care. We have peer visitors, amputees who come.
At same time, we wanted this to be a community project. So the Ukrainian community is very involved locally. They did last Sunday fundraising for next group. They cook, they get the buildings, they organize a big banquet. Viktor Hevko came from Chicago to lead the last event.
Then I went to international prosthetics suppliers and said: do you want to help Ukraine? They said yes. So for example, [prosthetics manufacturers] Ottobock stepped up and provided all parts for first group. Ossur for second group. For the child prosthetics, Prutor stepped up to give us twenty-five new feet for next group.
KLM: How can regular people help– in US, globally?
YG: On our social media, Prosthetics for Ukrainians, on Facebook there is a link to donate.
What was interesting– sorry, I’m getting emotional here. What was very touching and made us more inspired– emails and phones start dinging. Donated, donated, donated. But like three, five, seven bucks, ten bucks, fifteen bucks. We start to dig more. Realised it’s Ukrainians, donating from Ukraine, donating here to the US. A common donation will be $3.50. Because of the cost of hryvnia to dollar. That’s where you get the unusual exchange.
And that means that it’s them in Ukraine, financially impaired right now, financially hurt, still stepping up.
KLM: At the beginning when you were talking with your family and you were thinking: would it be better to be there, or to stay in the States? It’s not a theoretical question for you. Your own family is there.
YG: My parents and two brothers and two sisters are still in Ukraine, on western border. My brother is orthopedic surgeon. Whenever I talk to him, it’s always: I have to go now. Five more soldiers arrived.
Fifteen years ago I came here with family, I left Ukraine. You feel that guilt inside, you left your country where you grew up, that educated you. It was always in my mind– God, give me that opportunity so I can help my country.
So sending components there, it’s good, but maybe other companies can do that. I can work more here, helping and then following up with these amputees. That way I take a chunk of those people and can help them directly.
KLM: So the plans now are just to continue the fundraising, continue bringing rounds of people as long as the war goes on? And I suppose even after?
YG: Yes. There’s a story in the Bible about Esther. Esther becomes queen of Babylonian kingdom. And Mordecai is saying to her, don’t be quiet. Do something– because it could be that you’re for this time. Maybe I’m like Esther, for this time. As far as I know, I’m only Ukrainian prosthetist here in the United States. So I will do my best to help Ukraine from here.
Wait. I forgot to ask them. I have two soldiers living with us. Give me a few minutes.
[Dr. Gradinar returns with Vladyslav Samoilyk, a Ukrainian soldier rehabilitating with his new prosthetic and staying at his house, in the US for the first time.]
This is Vlad. He just woke up.
He’s from Bila Tservka, a city close to Kiyv.
KLM: Thank you for talking with me! I’m sorry to bother you early in the morning when you’re recovering. How has your experience been coming to the States and working with the doctor? With the prosthetic?
[Dr. Gradinar translates between KLM and VS.]
VS: We were waiting three months to get to United States. First time. It wasn’t happening before that soldiers were flying to United States to get prosthetic care.
After solving all problems, we arrived to United States. In three hours, when we started the process, we already were on prosthetics, and we were walking.
I am very happy about modern prosthetics, that I can live my daily life and be comfortable. Big thanks to Dr. Yakov, for his work and his team. Work was done much faster and quicker than it’s done in Ukraine or even in Europe.
I’m very happy with prosthetic. I’m enjoying it like a kid enjoying a little toy.
KLM: What’s the actual practical process? It’s physical therapy every day, to fit it properly?
YG: Days they will come to physical therapy and see physical therapist volunteers. But also I come and do adjustments as well. So they have a back-up prosthetic.
KLM: And so the process every day is getting a bit better, a bit easier?
VS: Yes, I’m getting used to it every day, better and better. On third week, I feel way more confident and more comfortable than on first week.
KLM: Have you been surprised with the community in the US, the welcoming? Has it been a bright spot in this experience, that you feel support from people, around the world and in the US?
VS: It was very bright moment I didn’t expect upon my arrival, what happened. Around 200 people meeting us at airport. We thought that it’s going to be one person with little poster that says I’m waiting for you guys. I’m very thankful for Ukrainian community here in the United States for support.
YG: Here in Minneapolis we have Ukrainian center. But they also went to Chicago [an even bigger Ukrainian-American diaspora city nearby] and spent three days. That was really awesome. They went to different city, and they had same thing from Ukrainian community there.
KLM: And you’re going back in how many days?
YG: They’re flying out to Ukraine tomorrow.