A Brave Choice

Doctors often have the means to surround themselves with comfort. When you see a physician in a war zone, it’s most likely because they want to be there. They want to use their skills and abilities to help the sick, wounded, and dying…those less fortunate than themselves. I’ve worked with a lot of doctors in uncomfortable, often dangerous places that they didn’t have to be. When the invariable question comes up, “Why are you here?” their answer is almost universal. Without being boastful, they usually say something to the effect of, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” You have to admire that; it embodies the best of human nature.

And such is the case with Valentyna (58) and Arkady (age 62) Glushenko, a Ukrainian husband and wife physician team that refuses to run from the trauma that is ripping apart their homeland.

A pair of Ukrainian soldiers pass by doctors Arkady and Valentyna Glushenko (right), who are taking a break to chat outside their hospital in Slovyansk, Ukraine, on June 8, 2022. Image Credit: Heidi Levine

They could have left before the artillery started, before their hospital had to be protected by layer upon layer of sandbags, before military and civilian ambulances teaming with wounded lined up outside, with patients sometimes waiting hours to see exhausted healthcare workers. But they didn’t. It would have been the easy thing to do. Over seventy percent of their staff had already taken off and moved to a safer location.

The Glushenko’s children begged them to follow suit and save themselves. After all, doctors are no more immune to enemy artillery strikes than anyone else. But they could not and will not leave despite the fact that Russian forces are currently within ten miles of their city.

Arkady explains it this way: “If the general runs away from the hospital, what happens to the army?” He says this over the sound of nearly constant artillery rounds that rattle the windows of his first-floor office. He goes on to say, “I have to help people. It doesn’t matter if they are army or civilians. It doesn’t matter gender, faith, or who you are.”

A cardiac patient recovers in the Glushenko’s Slovyansk hospital, his windows blocked with pillows and blankets for protection. Image Credit: Heidi Levine

Many civilians have already left this portion of eastern Ukraine, where the threat of a Russian takeover is very real. For weeks, near-constant Russian shelling has forced outgunned Ukrainian forces back and out of cities surrounding the hospital. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. In 2014, Russian forces briefly took the town of Slovyansk during their assault on the Donbas region. They used part of the hospital as a base while Ukrainian doctors worked around them to treat the wounded on both sides.

Arkady was there at the time and is doing his best to push the worst-case scenario out of his head. “They are not here right now,” he says, “So let’s just not bring it up.”

A Hospital Love Story

The couple met at this hospital decades ago when Arkady was a first-year surgical resident and Valentyna was an Operating Room nurse. In 1984, they married and had a son. Over time, Arkady persuaded his wife to return to school to become a doctor. She did, eventually specializing in Gynecology.

Dr. Valentyna Glushenko strolls through the hospital’s basement, which has also been turned into a patient care area. Image Credit: Heidi Levine

Physicians are used to extremely hard work and personal sacrifice. Valentyna was eventually promoted to the point where she became head administrator of the hospital while her husband became the Director of Surgery. She commented on how she had worked so many shifts that she didn’t get to see her kids grow up.

Back in the early 90s, as Ukraine became an independent nation, the couple went six months without pay. They worked multiple hospital shifts while bartering vegetables from their garden for badly needed supplies.

No Picnic

Times are tough inside the Ukrainian hospital. There is no running water. In the United States, this is almost unthinkable. We tend to get upset if the air conditioning is off by a degree or two. These brave, dedicated people are washing their hands out of plastic bottles. Everyone rushes to help fill up the water bottles when the portable water tanker arrives, even the physicians.

Arkady doesn’t mind. He reminds us that it still beats what the conditions were back in 2014 when they had to collect rainwater.