Ukraine’s last doctors provide a lifeline in shell-swept Bakhmut

At a health center in Ukraine’s front-line town of Bakhmut, Dr. Elena Molchanova ushers patients into a cramped office heated by a wood-burning stove, where she hands out medication and fills out death certificates.

Sometimes its visitors—the last residents of the town bombarded daily and cut off from basic services—seek shelter from the bitter cold.

The 40-year-old doctor is one of only five left in Bakhmut and is now a lifeline for some 8,000 people local officials say are still in the city.

Bakhmut has been at the center of a fierce battle between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the past few months in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, which Moscow wants to fully control.

When the city was bustling with its pre-war population of about 70,000, the corridors of Molchanova’s clinic were lit up, the restroom was working and the reception desk was staffed.

Now, she maintains a single desk, with random piles of medical equipment, sacks of potatoes and papers piled around her.

She fears that the large window behind her desk will shatter if one of the shells falling around town hits too close.

Also read: Strikes in eastern Ukraine despite Putin’s ceasefire order

But she doesn’t plan to leave.

“When I entered medical school, I took the Hippocratic Oath, and I cannot betray these people,” she told AFP.

“They come here for medical care, and we provide it as best we can.”

– The elderly and the disabled –

Many of those still living amid the fighting in Bakhmut and the nearby town of Solidar – described by a senior Ukrainian official as the “bloodiest” since the Russian invasion last February – are elderly or have disabilities.

Molchanova said the availability of medication and equipment, especially for psychiatric problems or chronic conditions like diabetes, is spotty at best.

Supplies depend on what comes from the Ministry of Health, nonprofits, or even retrieved from bombed-out buildings — like the two wheelchairs being carried by soldiers on Wednesday afternoon.

“First come, first served,” said Molchanova.

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“There are not enough insulin syringes and insulin needles. We ran out of heart medicine very quickly. There is enough paracetamol but that will not cure the patient.”

Even if Molchanova cannot always provide medical care, she and her husband and two other doctors provide relief to the residents of Bakhmut by welcoming them in the basement next to the health center where they live.

The low-ceilinged, lamp-lit rooms are lined with high piles of thick logs for kindling the hearths.

With a generator on hand, residents can charge phones and access a now scarce internet connection while escaping the bitter cold.

The icy weather may mean Molchanova no longer worries about cooling down insulin, but the temperatures have caused residents to catch colds or burn from stoves.

– Constant bombing –

For others, it was deadly and it is often Molchanova who fills out multiple death certificates daily.

Oleksey Stepanov came to see a doctor to obtain a death certificate for his 83-year-old neighbor, who died in the house where the windows were blown out.

“People are afraid,” Stepanov said.

Tetiana, who asked that her last name not be used, came to buy medicines for her neighbour, an 81-year-old man who is deaf, blind and bedridden.

“He has no evidence that there is a war, that we are being bombed,” she said.

Once paid to take care of him by his family, she now stays of her own free will.

“I’m afraid to take this old man with me. He’s not in a condition to travel,” she said. “I’m not leaving.”

Also read: Russia says Ukraine strike toll has risen to 89

She shares Molchanov’s feelings.

Even if she doesn’t understand why some people, especially families with children, don’t run away, she feels obligated to stay and take care of them.

“As long as they are here, I will be here.”

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