“Across the agency we have seen a rise, especially in the past few years, of kiddos who identify as LGBTQ who are going through some of our highest levels of care,” said Libby Haight, director of community-based programs for the Minneapolis-based Washburn Center for Children. “It’s a disturbing trend.”
Nationally, a recent poll conducted by the The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit focused on ending suicide among LGBTQ young people, found that 86% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported that recent discussion around anti-trans bills has harmed their mental health, and 72% of transgender and nonbinary youth polled say that policies that will ban health care professionals from providing gender-affirming care make them feel angry.
Haight noted that she and her colleagues have seen an increase in requests for mental health care from LGBTQ youth and their parents. Last week, I asked Haight about her young clients’ struggles and the ways the adults in their lives can help them feel safe and supported despite widespread discrimination. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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MinnPost: There has been an increase in legislation eliminating access to gender-affirming care for trans youth around the country. How are your young clients reacting to this news?
Libby Haight: We’ve seen some fairly intense depression and anxiety. There is also more almost trauma-related symptoms that appear to be coming from the discrimination that these kids feel they’ve been facing. Trans kids or gay kids are essentially just kids: They are facing all the same stressors that any normal teen would face but on top of that there is a feeling that their sense of self, their whole personality, is being attacked.
It’s already hard to be an LGBTQ youth. You may already be feeling down because you are not accepted by your family or other kids at school. Then, on top of that, there are now these movements going on in other parts of the country against trans rights. A lot of kids who are LGBTQ are feeling badly. A concerning national statistic from the Trevor Project is that 93% of trans and nonbinary youth said they have worried about having access to gender-affirming health care.
MP: How are your young clients hearing about these political movements?
LH: It’s all over social media that these things are happening in places like Texas, so the kids in our programs see that, and it adds to the general sense of insecurity that they are already facing. They feel like at any time they could be subject to discrimination: If this is happening in Texas, what’s going to stop it from happening anywhere else? Why not here?
It’s an overall sense of a lack of safety. As they are forming their identity in their teen years and going through a process of figuring out who they are, this is a big challenge to their sense of identity. As young people who identify with the LGBTQ community, they get a sense that something is just not safe. That adds to an overall feeling of anxiety and depression because if you are LGBTQ, you start to realize that you are in a situation where essentially the people of your state could decide to turn against you.
MP: Does it help these kids to know that Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recently signed a bill that offers expanded protections for trans people in the state?
LH: I think there’s a sense of relief. The kids here in Minnesota know anti-trans legislation is not something that is going to happen here immediately, but there still is a sense of uneasiness that if we had a different governor, a different Legislature, it could change.
MP: Much of the argument in favor of limiting access to gender-affirming care for kids is that it can cause irreversible damage to a child. Do those kind of claims give the young people you work with pause about seeking this kind of care?
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LH: When it comes to gender-affirming care, most of the trans kids I have been working with are very much looking forward to a time when they can access those services. This treatment is very important to them. They consider it to be an important next step in their development. They don’t believe that gender-affirming care will cause them harm. To be told you can’t have the care you so desire is wrong and very delegitimizing of where kids are coming from. This kind of legislation is telling young people that lawmakers think they know what is best for them or that they can come between them and their parents.
What I am experiencing, rather than concern about the negative impact of gender-affirming care, is seeing more kiddos who are very upset by the fact that someone could come to the conclusion that gender-affirming care is somehow wrong. Even though that is not happening in Minnesota now, it is still concerning knowing that it is happening in other states.
MP: There is a real concern that trans adolescents have a higher rate of suicide. People who have spoken out against anti-trans legislation have highlighted that as a real fear.
LH: Adolescents are adolescents and adolescents face stressors. That’s a fact of life. Adolescence is not an easy place to be in life. There is nothing about being trans that would cause a teen to be more prone to suicidality than a cisgender teen, but in a non-supportive environment, if they don’t have at least one supportive adult in their life, the chance of attempting or thinking about suicide goes way up for trans youth. That risk has more to do with the environment that they live in than it has to do with being trans.
There are lot of studies that say if they have unwavering support from at least one adult in their life, a young person’s chance of suicide goes way down.
MP: Are there other safety factors that you consider when you are working with a young LGBTQ client?
LH: We look at if their school is supportive. We rarely recommend that kids go to a different school, but sometimes school can be a real source of anxiety and pain for kiddos.
For instance, I am working with a kid who was going to a school that was super-unsupportive. They had massive mental health impacts from that experience. It was a really risky situation for them. They recently moved to a school that is more supportive and their suicidality has gone down to zero. They are managing their depression symptoms. I can’t overstate the impact that the school environment can have on LGBTQ youth.
MP: Is there anything that you are saying to help ease your young clients’ fears?
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LH: I think it’s important to do a lot of validation that there’s good reason for them to be scared. It is validating to tell kiddos that they are not making it up. They are not being melodramatic or unreasonable by saying these things are deeply concerning to them. The other important thing is acknowledging that what is going on in our country right now is scary and then talking about how we can manage to live in that reality.
MP: I remember being a young person and how reassuring it was for me when an adult in my life told me, “It’s going to be OK.”
LH: I personally would never want to say anything like that right now because I can’t guarantee that things will be OK, that the political winds are not going to shift in a different direction. Here in Minnesota, we’ve had different types of legislative leaders that have been less supportive of the trans community.
I wouldn’t want to say that everything is going to be OK, but I would want to make sure that young people understand that there is very little risk that anything like that is going to happen here in Minnesota for the next few years at least. That said, it is still happening around the country and that is scary.
MP: So what is the best role that an adult can play in a LGBTQ youth’s life?
LH: Part of having supportive adults in your life is knowing that those adults are doing what they can to make sure that this kind of legislation is not going to happen in Minnesota. Young people can ask the adults in their lives, “Who are you voting for?” or, “Are you supporting programs and legislation that make sure that LGBTQ youth will be supported rather than attacked?”
It’s important for young people to know adults who are supportive of LGBTQ youth. And it’s important for those adults to speak out.
Six of Minnesota’s largest health systems have dedicated some 30 administrative employees and financial and operational executives toward a joint year-long learning endeavor — probing the intersection of health and housing.
It’s an unusual undertaking, but the inaugural Minnesota Healthcare Learning Cohort seeks to deepen growing research into “social determinants of health,” or the everyday aspects of modern living that steer some groups to healthier outcomes and hold others back. Research shows some 80% of health is linked to what happens outside of a doctor’s office or medical institution.
The 30 fellows, drawn from wide-ranging departments such as operations, finance, community engagement, patient education and pediatric care, will weigh results from community investments and practices across the country surrounding affordable housing. They’ll convene in six half-day, full-day and two-day sessions between March 28 and Nov. 30.
The cohort is a product of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund’s Housing & Health Equity Initiative. The goal is for participants to bring their findings back to their respective healthcare institutions to help guide policymaking.
The participating organizations are Allina Health, Children’s Minnesota, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Essentia Health, CentraCare and M-Health Fairview.
“We have seen through our work how a stable home is the most impactful social determinant of health and equity,” said Eric Muschler, director of the Housing & Health Equity Initiative. “Housing is a key multiplier for outcomes that improve family and community health including education, income security, safety, connectivity and even mental health.”
The year-long program is backed by a partnership of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, Minnesota Housing and the Center for Community Investment.
Two top officials at the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs have been fired two weeks after current and former caregivers spoke out publicly about allegations of a long-standing toxic work environment at the Hastings Veterans Home.
Larry Herke, commissioner of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, said Sunday in a message to workers that Saturday was the last day for Doug Hughes, deputy commissioner for veterans health care, and Mike Anderson, administrator of the Minnesota Veterans Home in Hastings.
“I am aware of ongoing issues that have been raised at the Hastings Veterans Home,” Herke’s message said. “I have decided to go in a different direction with the home’s leadership.”
Herke also plans a ‘listening session’ before the hearing Tuesday in Hastings, according to a copy of a flyer obtained by the Pioneer Press.
Leaders, caregivers respond
Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the veterans committee, said the panel would “take testimony and ask questions of Commissioner Herke, veterans home staff, and others.”
Murphy praised the staffing decision announced on Sunday.
“I am grateful to see the MDVA acting to address the unacceptable conditions for veterans and their caregivers in Hastings,” Murphy said in a statement. “Our committee and our caucus take seriously the allegations of mismanagement, retaliation, and staff turnover, and its impact on the care and the lives of our treasured veterans.”
In a statement through their attorney Chris Wachtler, the caregivers who raised the concerns said: “While these necessary changes are significant and a positive step forward, many have suffered tremendous pain and loss which cannot be undone and should not be forgotten.”
Caregivers said the toxic workplace culture endangers some of the state’s most vulnerable veterans who turn to these state-run domiciliaries because they have nowhere else to go. Many suffer from chronic medical conditions, mental health challenges and substance abuse.
In a statement Sunday, Gov. Tim Walz said the state’s veterans were a priority for his administration and they should receive the “highest level of compassion and care.”
“The men and women who serve our country deserve nothing less,” said Walz, who served 24 years in the Army National Guard. “This is one of many positive steps the Department of Veterans Affairs is taking to improve the situation for staff taking care of residents at our veterans homes.”
Ongoing problems went unaddressed
While the coronavirus outbreak has led to the widespread burnout and departure of medical staff at many facilities, caregivers say the problems in Hastings predate the pandemic.
Anderson was the administrator for the Hastings home, which has room for about 150 veterans, since 2018 and he also oversaw the domiciliary in Minneapolis where about 50 live. Hughes was his boss and was in charge of ensuring the state provided veterans with adequate health care since 2016.
Both previously had declined to comment about the allegations.
Caregivers say they brought their concerns to Hughes and Anderson as well as other superiors, but the problems went unaddressed. They eventually wrote to Herke and Gov. Walz in the summer of 2022.
The allegations were sent to Minnesota Management and Budget, which handles human resources for state agencies. In September, a management and budget deputy commissioner sent a letter saying the Department of Veterans Affairs had “identified improvement areas” and would be “implementing continuous education.”
The complaint was closed, the letter said. Caregivers who raised the concerns said no one from the state contacted them to learn more about their allegations.
New facilities and concerns about care
Residents at the Hastings home have also raised concerns about their care. They say staffing levels have fallen to a bare minimum and they may have to wait days to see a doctor unless it is an emergency.
The domiciliaries in Hastings and Minneapolis are care homes, not skilled nursing facilities. Nevertheless, the homes are charged with providing residents round-the-clock “guidance and support by trained professionals in the areas of nursing, mental health, social work and senior care.”
The state Department of Veterans Affairs plans to open three more homes this year — in Bemidji, Montevideo and Preston — and some workers worry the state hasn’t allocated enough funding to operate what will soon be eight facilities statewide. Gov. Walz has proposed a $57 million increase, or about 43 percent, in the next two-year budget for veterans health care.
The Minnesota Legislature also is debating spending $78 million to replace the Hastings campus, a more than 100-year facility. That’s the state’s portion of the proposed $220 million project with the rest coming from the federal government.
The project has broad bipartisan support with Democrats and Republicans also agreeing workplace issues need to be addressed.
“Allegations of a culture of abuse at the veterans home are alarming and deserve a hard look,” Sens. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, and Zaynab Mohammad, DFL-Minneapolis, wrote to Gov. Walz March 13.
Rep. Shane Hudella, R-Hastings, praised Herke’s decision to move quickly to address workplace complaints. “As a member of the veteran community myself, I will always place the treatment of our heroic service members, and those that care for them, at the top of my list of Minnesotans to fight for,” Hudella said in a statement on Sunday.
In his note to staff, Commissioner Herke said the search to replace Hughes and Anderson was underway and in the meantime Brad Lindsay, currently deputy commissioner of programs and services, will oversee veterans health care. Craig Smith, a licensed nursing home administrator, will be the interim administrator of the Hastings veterans home.
“We will be moving forward with new leadership at the Hastings Veterans Home, and we are looking forward to continuing to make positive changes in the service of our Veterans,” Herke said.
Medicaid coverage will end for millions of Americans in the coming months, and it will push many into unfamiliar territory: the health insurance marketplace.
States will start cutting people from the government-funded plans when they no longer qualify based on income, a process that has been paused since shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The timing of these cuts will vary. But all states have insurance markets where people who lose Medicaid can buy new coverage with help from subsidies. Some states will even connect shoppers with a potential new plan.
Shopping for affordable insurance that covers regular doctors and prescriptions can be daunting, especially in marketplaces that offer dozens of choices and subsidies to help pay for them. Experts say it helps to start this search with a plan. Here’s a deeper look at the process.
WHAT’S HAPPENING TO MEDICAID?
Nearly 85 million people are covered by government-funded Medicaid, which focuses on people with low incomes.
At the start of the pandemic, the federal government prohibited states from kicking people off Medicaid if they were no longer eligible. That ban ends this spring, and many people on Medicaid will be introduced to this so-called redetermination process for the first time.
States are already verifying eligibility. Some, like Arizona, Arkansas and Idaho are expected to start ending coverage for ineligible people in April. Most states will be doing that in May, June and July.
Federal officials estimate that more than 8 million people will lose eligibility and leave Medicaid mainly because their incomes have changed.
WHERE TO GET NEW COVERAGE
State-based health insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act are the only places where people can buy individual insurance with help from an income-based subsidy. They can be found through the federal government’s healthcare.gov website.
Shoppers also can find coverage sold outside these marketplaces, but it may be risky. For instance, short-term plans can exclude coverage of certain things like a medical condition someone had before signing up.
The cost of any new plan should be one of the first things people consider. Shoppers can get income-based subsidies to help pay monthly premiums of plans they buy on the state-based marketplaces. Those subsidies were enhanced during the pandemic.
People often don’t realize they can get this help, said Jeremy Smith, director of West Virginia’s health insurance navigator program, which helps shoppers find coverage.
“A very large percentage of people can qualify for a plan starting at $0 per month,” he said.
Individual insurance differs from Medicaid in several ways. Some marketplace plans come with a big deductible that people must pay before most coverage starts.
Shoppers should understand deductibles and other payments they will need to make before committing to a plan, Smith noted.
Individual insurance also groups hospitals and doctors in networks. The insurance may cover much less of the bill for care received outside those networks. Shoppers should learn how any regular doctors and medications are covered before enrolling in a new plan.
Individual insurance also can give people more care choices. Many doctors don’t accept Medicaid, and states may pay for only a limited amount of prescriptions.
“It is possible that people will have better access to certain services in the marketplace,” said Jennifer Tolbert, a Medicaid expert at the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation.
IMPORTANT STEPS IF YOU’RE ON MEDICAID
Make sure your state program has your current contact information, including a mailing address plus email and cellphone. They will send notifications if they need more information or if someone no longer qualifies for Medicaid.
“Everyone should do that before April,” said said Joshua Brooker, an independent broker based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “It’s going to make a smoother transition.”
Start shopping for new insurance before Medicaid ends. Shoppers should allow plenty of time to sort through options.
The goal should be to have new insurance that starts the day after Medicaid ends. That would cut down on temporary coverage losses for regular doctors or important medicines.
Once shoppers register to shop in the insurance marketplace, they have 60 days to find a plan.
Seeking assistance may be a good idea, especially for people who need help figuring out their income for the coming year. That’s needed to calculate subsidies.
There are several ways people can get help.
States will transfer the names and contact information of those who no longer qualify for Medicaid to their marketplaces. They also will send a letter to Medicaid beneficiaries telling them how to connect to the marketplace, said Kate McEvoy, executive director of the nonprofit National Association of Medicaid Directors.
Some states will go further. California’s marketplace, Covered California, will enroll people in a qualified health plan and send them the information. Those people then must confirm enrollment and pay the first premium to remain covered.
State marketplaces have navigators like Smith who can help people sort through options and understand potential plans. The government-funded navigators are free to use but they cannot recommend any specific choices.
Federally qualified health centers also have counselors who can help people apply.
Independent brokers also help people sort through options. They will get a fee that usually comes out of the premium you wind up paying.
Ukrainian soldier Dmytro Batychko was running for cover from a Russian drone attack last summer when another soldier stepped on a landmine. It exploded. Batychko’s comrade fell.
Batychko ran to help. He stepped on another landmine. His comrade died; Batychko lost the lower half of his left leg.
Batychko was one of five Ukrainian soldiers who arrived in Minnesota on March 10. The men share a heartbreaking similarity: They have all lost a limb in the war with Russia.
Brought to the U.S. by the Protez Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps Ukrainian children, soldiers and civilians get free, high-quality prosthetics in the U.S., the soldiers were greeted with fanfare when they arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Within a few hours of landing, they were being fitted for prosthetics by Protez Foundation volunteers at a clinic in Oakdale. Two days later, four of the five men were walking.
“We were like little kids who were given a toy to play with,” said Batychko, 37, speaking in his native Ukrainian through interpreter Noyemin Gradinar. “We were walking all day on Sunday, but the doctor said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ He sat us down and said, ‘You can’t do everything in one day. There will be time to do this more.’”
After months of using a wheelchair and crutches, Batychko said it felt strange to be walking on both feet again. “I thought it would hurt a lot to be up on my feet for the first time, but it’s not as I thought,” he said. “It’s not too exhausting. I’m fine.”
Batychko, who was a repairman for a railroad prior to the war, said he learned about the Protez Foundation from a fellow soldier. “Protez” is Ukrainian for prosthesis. “I’m very lucky to be here,” he said.
Dozens helped in first year
The nonprofit organization has brought 56 Ukrainians to Minnesota since it was founded in May.
“We decided to do it in Minnesota for several reasons,” said Yakov “Jacob” Gradinar, the foundation’s chief medical officer. “First of all, we can provide them with prosthetics at a higher level of care because at this point the Ukrainian health system is very overwhelmed. Second, we can get these people three or four weeks of little vacation from the war. There are no sirens here.”
Also key is showing the soldiers “how the United States is supporting Ukraine in this difficult time,” he said. “These soldiers, they will bring that thought, that idea back to Ukraine.”
Each group of soldiers that arrives — last week’s contingent was the ninth group Protez has brought to the U.S. — travels to different parts of the country for one of the four weeks they are in the U.S. and shares their stories.
“Americans can come and talk and touch the result of the war,” Yakov Gradinar said. “We have an obligation to keep Ukrainian topic at top of mind here. It’s so easy to forget that war is still going and that people are getting killed and getting injured.”
The foundation relies on hundreds of volunteers in Minnesota to help with the effort. The clinic is located in donated space in the former Imation campus in Oakdale, which is owned by Slumberland Furniture. Prosthetics companies provide materials at a discount, and much of the work is done by volunteer prosthetist technicians and physical therapists. The soldiers live in a house that has been donated for a year near the Ukrainian American Community Center in Minneapolis, and volunteers cook and clean, Gradinar said.
Hundreds of people — many wearing the Ukrainian colors of blue and yellow — greet the soldiers at MSP. The welcoming committee on March 10 included children carrying bouquets of flowers, men playing the accordion and singers performing traditional Ukrainian folk songs.
Kostiantyn and Kathryn Korchak, dressed in Ukrainian folk costumes, greeted the soldiers with a loaf of homemade bread, called palianytsia, and a bowl of salt. Each soldier tore off a small piece of bread, dipped it into the salt, and bowed his head in thanks before eating it.
“It is a tradition used to welcome someone into your home, or you can use it at a wedding to welcome two families together,” said Kostiantyn Korchak, who lives in Northeast Minneapolis. “When you share bread and salt, you are inviting somebody into your home, you are inviting them into your life, you are inviting them into your heart.”
While the couple, members of a Ukrainian dance troupe, served the soldiers, the crowd sang the country’s national anthem: “Ukraine has not died yet, Glory to Ukraine!”
John Cashman, who lives in Savage, cried as he hoisted a “Be Brave Like Ukraine” banner. “I’m feeling some PTSD because I was a Vietnam veteran, and when we came home, there wasn’t anybody there cheering or supporting us,” he said. “So it’s kind of interesting these feelings that I’m having as I see these boys.”
Cashman, 74, and his wife, Kathryn, met a Ukrainian family through a church connection 25 years ago. When the war broke out, they arranged for Sasha and Zhanna Klymemko and their two grown daughters to come to the U.S. under “Uniting for Ukraine,” a federal government initiative launched last April. The program allows Ukrainians who have been displaced by the war to seek refuge in the U.S. if they have a private sponsor willing to house and financially support them for two years.
“They’re so proud to be Ukrainians,” Cashman said. “Mr. Putin hasn’t got a chance against their nationalist feelings. They’re like Americans, you know. When they get down, they’re gonna push back.”
Vasiliy and Olena Bandura, of Lakeville, learned about Protez in December when Gradinar came to speak at their church, First Ukrainian Baptist Church in St. Louis Park. They immediately signed up to volunteer. On Tuesday, the couple brought a homemade Ukrainian lunch: borscht with lamb; mashed potatoes with chicken gravy; kotlety (pork patties); cabbage salad; bread and blini (Ukrainian crepes).
“I worry about whether they’re eating enough,” said Olena Bandura, who came to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1999. “I am from Ukraine, and my heart is with the soldiers.”
“I am every day crying,” said Vasiliy Bandura, wiping tears from his eyes. “I am praying every day for my country. It’s very hard for me to be here and I watch the news every day and we pray for Ukraine every day. We are very happy to see that our President Biden is helpful in providing help for Ukraine.”
‘We need to fight’
Gradinar, an orthopedic surgeon in Ukraine, moved to the U.S. in 2007 and trained to be a prosthetist. After the war began, Gradinar said he was motivated to do what he could to help his homeland — even from thousands of miles away. He met Yury Aroshidze, the foundation’s CEO, through a mutual friend — a pastor from Dnipro, Ukraine, who needed a prosthetic leg. The two men decided to join forces and form the Protez Foundation.
In October, Gradinar, 46, who is married and has seven children, left the prosthetics clinic where he worked in Minneapolis and went to work full-time at the foundation.
“There was a moment where I was leaving my job when I thought, ‘This is crazy. This is getting out of control,’” said Gradinar, who lives in Elk River. “I felt, literally, physical fear. I was like, ‘Yakov, you’re crazy,’ but then I thought of Proverbs 28:1. It says, ‘Wicked man is running when no one is chasing him, but righteous man is courageous as a lion.’ That verse came to my mind, and that gives me a lot of drive. When we are doing great things, we need to fight. We need to fight and be persistent and be courageous because a lot of evil people are fighting for their own. We have to be more courageous, and we have to be with that drive when we are doing the right thing.”
The Protez Foundation recently opened a clinic in western Ukraine — in the province of Zakarpattia — so amputees outfitted in Oakdale have a place to go for checkups. Protez officials also plan to offer prosthetic training to medical professionals in Ukraine “because the country’s health care system has been overwhelmed by the war,” he said.
Funding for the foundation has come mostly from individual donors, according to Gradinar. The most meaningful donations have been some of the smallest, he said.
“We started seeing donations for $3.47, $5.12, and we were like, ‘Who would donate that amount?’” he said.
It turns out it was Ukrainians who heard about the foundation’s work and were sending money from Ukraine. One hundred hryvnia, the country’s national currency, is worth about $2.72.
“That was so touching and inspired us even more,” Gradinar said. “That encouraged us even more to do what we were doing because they saw the need. They knew what needed to be taken care of.”
Priority is given to children who have lost limbs in the war, he said, because they are “the most vulnerable.” Among those in the second group of Ukrainians brought to the U.S. by Protez were two boys — ages 9 and 12. They have stayed in Minnesota with their mothers as they recover, he said.
Artem, the 9-year-old, lost his left hand after his house was hit by a strike. He and his brother and father were running to a shelter when another rocket struck them from behind. “Artem’s father was holding his brother’s hand and carrying Artem,” Gradinar said. Artem survived; his father and brother did not.
The other boy, Alex, now 13, was playing on a playground in Mariupol when a rocket hit. “He was in that explosion fog,” Gradinar said. “He lost his left leg. He said, ‘I just started to run back to my house and for some reason my leg wasn’t listening to me.’”
A church in Tennessee had just donated $5,000 to Protez when Alex arrived, Gradinar said. “I was able to buy him a running prosthetic, and he’s so happy that he can run,” he said. “He’s not just walking with a regular prosthetic.”
Sviatoslav Chernetskyi, 26, a programmer/engineer for Siemens, had his left leg blown off below the knee when he stepped on a landmine in an occupied village. “Everything was mines there,” he said, speaking in English. “Me and my friend looked for some way to get across the river. The bridge was always under fire, so we tried to find another way. As we were looking for another possible place, I stepped on a landmine.”
Chernetskyi was treated at four different hospitals before he learned about the Protez Foundation. He filled out an online form and submitted it. “I didn’t know if I would get picked to come here,” he said. “I just decided to try my luck and fill it out. If I came here, great. If not, then not a problem, I can get a prosthesis in Ukraine. But I had luck.”
The prosthesis he received in Ukraine was “very, very basic,” he said. “That foot doesn’t have any energy transfer or shock absorption. It has nothing, almost. You walk almost like on a piece of wood, so this is a huge difference.”
Andrii Sobkovskyi, 21, a double amputee, got to test out his new carbon-fiber feet and legs last Sunday. Two days later, the prosthetics were lengthened to make Sobkovskyi taller.
“It’s like trying to walk on ladders that are 6 feet tall,” said Wade Hallstrom, a Protez volunteer who owns a prosthetics lab called Heidi’s Legs, based in Hugo. “It’s incredibly difficult, but he’s strong — mentally and physically. Their mental attitude is a lot of it.”
Sobkovskyi, who arrived in Minnesota in February, was injured while he and other soldiers were protecting an area near Odesa, a city on the Black Sea. “Three rockets came from a ship into our barracks where we were and exploded,” he said. “A missile flew in, and the roof caved in, and the cement ceiling fell on my legs.”
Sobkovskyi and the other Ukrainian amputees have been a joy to work with, said Hallstrom, who spent Sunday building “four legs — three of them below the knee and one above the knee.”
“I’ve never met amputees like this before,” Hallstrom said. “They are so motivated and so just gung-ho to get going and to get moving. … This is the first time (Sobkovskyi) has walked, and he’s already up and going.”
One of the most positive is Oleksandr Ishchenko, 48, who had his left leg amputated after a mortar shell exploded and filled it with shrapnel near the start of the war. He then spent seven months in captivity.
“We were protecting our territories from the Russian Federation,” he said. “We were still setting up, and we weren’t quite ready. When Russian forces started coming at us, we were required to start fighting back. Russian drones found our location, and they started shooting. It was an awful scene. In front of my eyes, two guys died right away. There was no way to help them, and, unfortunately, there was no one there to help them.”
Ishchenko was wounded, but able to put a tourniquet on himself. He spent six days in a “base house” before Russians clearing the area found him and took him prisoner, he said.
“Others were beaten to death, and one of the soldiers found me and was like, ‘What should I do with him? I can just beat him up even more,’” he said, speaking in his native Ukrainian through translator Noyemin Gradinar. “He had already cocked his gun and put it up to my head. I was ready to die.”
But, he said, “destiny decided otherwise.”
“Their officers reacted right away, and they said, ‘Wait, don’t do it. You can’t do this,’” he said on Tuesday. “That’s one of the things where I’m very grateful to the officers that they were able to stop the soldier from killing me. This was on March 14, 2022, so today is my second birthday.”
While in captivity in Russia, he was treated by a physician who was “very neutral,” he said. “He didn’t take sides. I got really lucky. When I tried to pay for the surgery, he said, ‘I don’t need your money. I’m a doctor, and it’s my job to save people.’”
Ishchenko, a retired stonemason, hails from Kamianske, an industrial city in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine. “I really love my city,” he said. “If somebody told me to move somewhere, I wouldn’t do it because the city has a lot of meaning to me. A lot of happy memories that happened in this city.”
He said he can’t wait to return home and see his wife, twin daughters and 6-year-old granddaughter. Another granddaughter will arrive this fall, he said, “so we’ll have a lot of stuff to do.”
Return and fight
Yevhenii Onyshchenko, who lost the lower part of his right leg when he stepped on a landmine on Oct. 7, said he plans to return to the front line as soon as he gets the OK.
“Everything will rely on how well I’ll be able to walk and how well things will be going on moving forward,” said Onyshchenko, 25. “This is the first time I’ve been walking in a very long time. It feels great. They did a nice job, and this isn’t even the final one. This is just the start. I never even dreamed of one like this.”
Batychko said he, too, plans to return and fight. “I’m going to protect our country and protect my family and live my life to its full potential,” he said.
The soldiers that Protez serves are “driven to defend Ukraine and not be a burden on their family and community,” Yakov Gradinar said. “They are soldiers. They are looking for the opportunity to just be able to get back up and walk and do what they were doing before they were injured.”
More than 780 Ukrainians have applied to be fitted with prosthetics through Protez, according to Gradinar. The foundation hopes to help 120 amputees this year, he said.
“When we first started, nobody thought the war would take so much,” Gradinar said. “When you start, you don’t think that the project is going to grow so big. It’s sad that that need is so big because people are injured, but at the same time you’re happy that we are a global community. We stand up for each other.”
Gradinar said he doesn’t see the war ending any time soon.
“Ukrainians are in a hard spot,” he said. “They would like to end the war, but as previous experience showed, if they settle for peace and don’t get Russians out of Ukrainian land, they will just start another war again. For that reason, I feel that Ukrainians just want to fight until they fully get them out of the land.
“When you talk to military guys, they have strong belief that in a year or so, they will be able to take over the land that was captured. The longer it goes, however, the more questions you have. The news showing how many people were killed, it definitely brings you down, but at the same time, you don’t have any choice. You have to fight.”
How to help injured Ukrainian soldiers
The Protez Foundation is looking for volunteers to translate, provide room and board to patients, and drive patients to and from the clinic in Oakdale.
Monday, March 20, marks the first day of spring which equates to warmer days ahead and a good excuse to add some variety to your workouts.
Jeff Harrison, a personal trainer from Lower Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania, starts taking advantage of outdoor training with some of his clients come spring.
“I have a client who, once it’s over 60 degrees, wants to be outside,” he said. “She loves the fresh air and she loves flowers and being outside with them.”
When outdoors they will do anything from squats and pushups to using an agility ladder or a TRX suspension trainer attached to a tree.
“It’s a different way of approaching everything that we would normally do indoors,” Harrison said.
His client also enjoys golfing in her spare time, so he challenges her to walk the course instead of using a cart.
As for his personal workouts, Harrison looks forward to spending more time on his bike on weekends after spending the winter working out at his home studio. A former competitor in bike races, today he prefers leisurely paved trail riding ever since he was hit by a car when biking on the road a few years ago.
“We are right near the Schuylkill River Trail and I will go as far as Philadelphia and back,” he said, adding he typically starts in Pottstown and will cover 30-40 miles.
Harrison, who is married and has one son, said he enjoys being outdoors in the fresh air and the opportunity to wear less clothing.
“I contend with allergies, but I’d still rather be outside,” Harrison said.
For those who have been mostly sedentary this winter and aren’t sure of the best way to ease back into physical activity, Harrison offers a suggestion to get started.
“Go outside and go for a walk,” he said. “Start out with 20 to 30 minutes and work your way up from that.”
Easy access to our area’s hiking trails offers a convenient way to get physical activity.
The first day of spring on Monday offers a start to getting outdoors more to enjoy out local parks.
Heading outdoors for a walk can serve as a good way to jumpstart your physical activity.
Switching up to outdoor workouts can add variety and another dimension to physical activity. (Jeff Harrison / submitted photo)
Jeff Harrison, competing in a bike race, enjoys weekend bike rides on the Schuylkill River Trail come spring. (Jeff Harrison / submitted photo)
Hiking in the woods is another option that Harrison enjoys.
“There is no end to the trails you can find around here,” he said, noting French Creek State Park, the Schuylkill River Trail, Green Lane Park and Warwick County Park are among his favorite destinations.
If you already have a workout regimen and your indoor workouts are getting stale, the extended daylight, warmer temperatures and less clothing make it a great time to make a change.
“It adds variety to all your avenues,” he said. “After being inside for so long it adds another dimension.”