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'It was hell:' Ukrainian family safe in Quebec after surviving Russian airstrikes

MONTREAL — Aurika Olkhova says she still can't believe that she and her two daughters made it out of Ukraine alive after enduring weeks of bombing by the Russian army in the city of Mariupol — including at the maternity hospital.
Aurika Olkhova (left) and her daughters, Vladyslava and Kristina (right), pose at their home in St-Bruno-de-Montarville, Que., Sunday, April 2, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

MONTREAL — Aurika Olkhova says she still can't believe that she and her two daughters made it out of Ukraine alive after enduring weeks of bombing by the Russian army in the city of Mariupol — including at the maternity hospital. 

Now safe in Quebec, working at a veterinary clinic, and her daughters learning French at school, Olkhova is telling her story. 

The psychological scars still give her nightmares and loud noises trigger memories of the bombings, but "the girls are happy." And thanks to a team of doctors at Montreal Children's Hospital, her youngest daughter is no longer limping.

The traumatic journey started when 10-year-old Vladyslava was struck in the leg by a piece of shrapnel in March 2022 when a Russian bomb fell on the home of family friends they were staying with in Mariupol, in southern Ukraine. 

Olkhova remembers ripping off a zipper from her jacket to use as a tourniquet to stop the heavy bleeding and the panic she felt calling ambulances, begging for help.

When the ambulance arrived there wasn't enough room for all three of them, so Olkhova made the difficult decision to leave her 17-year-old daughter, Kristina, behind. And when she and her youngest daughter got to the hospital, they learned it had run out of medication, leaving Vladyslava to endure two leg surgeries without anesthesia.

"It was hell outside, and it was hell inside that hospital basement," Olkhova recounted through an interpreter in a recent interview from her home in St-Bruno-de-Montarville, Que., east of Montreal. 

"There was blood everywhere, people heavily wounded, body parts and amputations."

Then the Russians bombed the hospital. The attack, which Ukrainian authorities called a "war crime," made headlines around the world. One pregnant woman was carried out on a stretcher after the bombing and died shortly after, along with her baby. 

"After the bomb struck the hospital, all internet connection was lost, and I could no longer use my phone, so I lost contact with Kristina," Olkhova said. "A makeshift shelter was set up in the basement of the hospital. It was overcrowded with wounded people. I still remember all of the horrible smells."

They spent several weeks at the hospital while Vladyslava recovered. Olkhova said she spent that time helping doctors treat the wounded, despite having no medical training. 

"To this day, I am still amazed that so many of these patients survived," she said. "I tried to help the wounded in any way that I could. There were a few of us helping. We tried to find medication and equipment. We found gas, and we used it to sterilize instruments."

Every time a new patient arrived at the hospital, she would check to see whether it was Kristina. Olkhova said she eventually learned the 17-year-old had fled to the city of Donetsk, about 120 kilometres north of Mariupol. The three were reunited in the eastern industrial city in April 2022 and fled to Poland before travelling in July to Canada.

"We have received so much support since we arrived in Canada," Olkhova said. "The girls are happy ... but I am still struggling. I have nightmares. Certain sounds trigger something inside me. I recently witnessed a car accident, and it was very traumatic for me."

Initially, Vladyslava would not allow anyone — not even doctors — to touch her leg wounds, Olkhova said. The little girl was limping and could not keep her balance. 

Dr. Pablo Ingelmo, a pediatric anesthesiologist and director of The Edwards Family Interdisciplinary Centre for Complex Pain at the Montreal Children's Hospital, said Vladyslava had been referred to a neurologist. But after going over her file, he said he quickly realized he was dealing with a war wound and took charge of her case.

"This is a perspective of a young child in a dark place with two or three adults on top of her, trying to contain her while another person is removing pieces of metal from her body without anesthesia," Ingelmo said during a recent interview.

"The family did not speak the language; they were without insurance, and they didn't even have their refugee papers yet," Ingelmo said. "We needed to bring her in because these people were completely alone."

Dr. Justine Turmel-Roy, a fellow at the complex pain centre, along with a team of nurses and a physiotherapist, created a care program to help heal Vladyslava's wounds. Turmel-Roy said she wore a shirt emblazoned with the Ukrainian flag to build a connection with the little girl. 

"She started trusting us," Turmel-Roy said. "She got better so quickly. I think we only saw her three or four times. And by the last visit, she was not limping anymore, and her balance had greatly improved. 

"I remember I could touch the scar and I remember she did not have the reaction of fear. There was a definitive improvement."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2023. 

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press

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