09 February 2023
At the start of the 2022 Russian incursion into Ukraine, Olga Rudneva found herself outside the border of her country, unable to return to her home in Kyiv. As a noted public health and media figure, Rudneva led the country’s premier HIV/AIDS philanthropy—The Elena Pinchuk Foundation—for 18 years, helping to destigmatize the disease and significantly increase the resources to affected and marginalized populations.
Rudneva’s global network spans community organizations to celebrity icons. With war under way, she and a small group immediately mobilized a massive effort. The operation, known simply as Help Ukraine, is a logistics hub that has received and moved thousands of pallets of medical and humanitarian supplies, delivering aid to Ukrainian refugees, displaced persons and the communities under siege from the fighting.
The severity of the refugee crisis alone is staggering. Over 7 million people have been forced to flee the country since February. An additional 6.5 million displaced by fighting remain in the country, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees.
As the violence escalated, so did the international attention. Meetings with foreign leaders and partnerships with major international businesses became part of daily life for the operation.
“By May, we were running all of our operations pretty smoothly and we were thinking, what can we do next?” Rudneva told us in a recent interview.
Along with her colleague Andrey Stavnitser, Rudneva saw increasingly a toll of walking wounded, people who had lost limbs in landmines and rocket attacks, whose lives would be forever changed. Many thousands of such victims are already in need of treatment. Mines have been found not just in streets and the countryside, but hidden in homes, in appliances. Because of their proliferation, civilians will likely continue to fall victim to these explosions and lose limbs for years, even if the war were to cease immediately.
Beyond front line emergency care, Ukraine’s health-care system does not have the capacity or the technology to address this obvious need. So Stavnitser founded the Superhumans Center, where Rudneva is now CEO. In the middle of a war, they would establish a world-leading prosthetics limbs facility for the treatment and rehabilitation of victims of war and their reintegration back into Ukrainian society. Now, surrounded by a talented team pulling together every available resource, they have established a site in a hospital in the city of Lviv and are more than halfway toward an initial fundraising goal of $50 million.
[An estimated 300,000 prosthetic limbs a year are discarded in America, read how three young entrepreneurs created a way to bring discarded prosthetics to amputees around the world in Waste that Costs an Arm and a Leg.]
The Brunswick Review spoke with Rudneva via Zoom as she was waiting for a train in Lviv. In our conversation, she highlighted the need not just for funding, but for medical expertise. It’s not enough to send Ukrainians abroad to be treated, she said. They need to have the possibility of a treatment support network at home, and training so that they can reintegrate into society with their modern prosthetic limbs. More, the entire country needs to change the way it views these war victims, from a standpoint of pity to one of pride.
“We have to start thinking about the future right now,” she said. “The war will end sooner or later. Nothing lasts forever. But we have to start thinking about what is next.”
The initial fall of Kyiv to the Russian forces was not the first time Rudneva was forced out of her home. She was born in Donetsk and spent much of her childhood in Crimea. Since the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, she has lost the ability to visit either location.
“That’s two places of my childhood that I lost,” she said. “It’s very hard to talk about that. On February 24, I often say that I started my third life—I couldn’t go into Kyiv for almost five months, and my house was ruined by the Russian regular Army.
“This time I’m not giving up. I got back to Kyiv in early May, and that’s where I see my future. I believe that one day I will be in Crimea and Crimea will be Ukrainian and I will have the chance to visit Donetsk and to see the Ukrainian flag in Donetsk. Because these are all Ukrainian territories, and we are sick and tired of being kicked off from our land and out of our houses. It just should stop.”
We want to change the picture of our country after the war. And we want to do it right now because it’s the best time to do that.
Can you tell us a little about what drove you to this project from your work at Help Ukraine?
This is an attempt to bring additional resources to Ukrainian healthcare system, which is very, very weak now. We’ve lost thousands of hospitals, thousands of schools all over Ukraine.
We had a huge number of people injured at the front lines, many were civilians who suffered from blast injuries, from bombings. And we realized that the government and the Ukrainian health-care system were not able to provide high-quality medical services. In some cases, they do not provide any services at all. Two of these areas were prosthetics and reconstructive surgeries. In Ukraine, prosthetics paid for by the government are limited to only certain cases—it was $10,000, now it’s $5,000 per patient. Reconstructive surgeries are not in the radar of the health-care system because it is only looking at emergency needs, basically it’s saving lives of those injured.
So, we thought that was a place where we could play a role, to establish a hospital that would be run by a nonprofit, with all its services free of charge to provide prosthetics, reconstructive surgeries, psychological support and rehabilitation. We got a very good response from the minister of health, and the first lady of Ukraine joined the initiative as a member of board and the minister of health is part of the medical board.
We found a home in Lviv, in the western part of near the Polish border and signed an agreement. We are going to occupy nine floors of a hospital, they’re going to fully belong to us, and including a rehabilitation center where we are planning to provide swimming pools, four rehabilitation pools on medical and sport rehabilitation. And it will be a joint ecosystem with other hospitals, exchanging patient services.
As we are just beginning construction at the hospital, patients are waiting and receiving psychological support and some rehabilitation. Right now, most of the amputations are happening at the front lines, so they present complications because of the way they were done or the length of time they have to wait to be treated. We want to bring doctors here, rather than send patients abroad, to make sure they are fitted correctly and that correct Ukrainian specialists and support are ready to take over treatment.
At the front lines, every step brings us more and more injured military people and civilians. The Ukrainian government estimates that more than 20% of Ukrainian territory is contaminated by landmines now. Detecting and disarming the mines will take up to seven years, according to international specialists. So even when the war is finished, we will see the patients and children who stepped in mines and lost a limb.
How challenging is it to set up such a facility in the midst of the conflict?
You know, it’s a good question, but if you would come to Ukraine right now, you would see that people are trying to live. We can’t stop our lives because of the war. If somebody told me a year ago that people will keep on with their daily lives, put on makeup, go to the grocery store, I wouldn’t have believed it. But that’s the reality. We have to keep building. We have to keep surviving. We have to keep trying. We can’t die because somebody wants to kill us. We have to resist. Trying to live and trying to build something is one of the forms of our resistance, a form of bravery.
We picked Lviv because it’s really safe. It’s not under rocket attacks. It does have air raid events but it’s quite safe. We have construction teams, we can go on employing people and working to reach our goal. Yes, it’s challenging. But all our lives are challenging right now. It’s nothing like what we had before, and we have to learn how to do adjust in real time.
But if not now, then when? We can wait until the war is over, but people who are injured during the war need help now. And physically, if you don’t fit a patient with a prosthesis in the first six months, probably you will never be able to. They will use crutches or wheelchairs because their muscles will lose their power. It’s a short window.
When we talk about this project, we talk about a visual picture of Ukraine. We can end up having country of handicapped people on the streets without limbs, outside, depressed. Or we can have a country where each of those people has a full prosthesis—bionic hands or legs and they will walk on the street. It’s two different pictures. And the second one is a picture of the country I want to live in. I want to see this country as my future home. And that’s what we are trying to do. We want to change the picture of our country after the war. And we want to do it right now because it’s the best time to do that.
What’s the response that you’ve been getting from people?
Since it’s a very structured project with a very clear partnership from the government, we are getting very positive response from our potential donors. We established a new partnership with The Howard G. Buffett Foundation. They are our main donor at the moment. We have a big supporter in the Virgin Group and Richard Branson, who’s been in Ukraine recently. The CEO of Virgin, Jean Oelwang, visited the hospital. Also, the Cargill Group is very supportive. They supported us with Help Ukraine, and they’ve supported the Superhumans project as well. Basically, we are looking for socially responsible companies who are interested in helping Ukraine.
We have an ambassador board, which consists of Liev Schreiber, the actor who has Ukrainian roots. He’s been in Ukraine many, many times. He’s already been active, visited the hospital, done all these things. We also have Sting and Trudy Styler. Trudy supported us with Help Ukraine. She found our website in the first days of the war and called at the Help Ukraine call center. These people are very, very good supporters of Superhumans.
We are also inviting medical expertise from all around the world. They can send over their ideas, their CVs, their proposals to join our team on our website, which is Superhumans.com. You can donate through the website as well. We see a lot of interest from international doctors who want to come and work here, assisting or leading medical teams.
Today people worldwide are getting used to the war and getting tired of the war. We are not tired because we are trying to save our land, trying to save our homes. But we do understand that the world cannot actually be active all the time. So it’s our job now to go around the world and remind them of the situation in Ukraine—tell the stories, show pictures, explain what is really going on. It’s very hard to keep the world active and interested.
You mentioned building a future Ukraine. How are you helping war victims become a resource for society?
One of the programs that we want to integrate involves veterans and our patients in our work process. We are planning to train prosthetic engineers and prosthetic technicians out of our patients, because those people have been through it. They know the trauma. They can be very good peer-to-peer supporters. We also plan to send the most interested candidates to psychological training so they can do groups and they can work with newcomers to the facility. It’s much easier for them to speak to veterans, speaking to their common experience. It’s harder for someone who hasn’t been through what they have been through.
Another aspect we are planning is to do a mass media campaign, trying to change attitudes toward people who were injured during the war. We want Ukrainians to see that not as a handicap, not as those people who lost the limb, but as people who can do more. So we want them to be treated as Ukrainian superhuman. That’s one of the goals of our project, to change attitudes toward injured people from one of pity to being proud of them.
We can’t die because somebody wants to kill us. We have to resist. Trying to live and trying to build something is one of the forms of our resistance, a form of bravery.
In what ways did your prior work prepare you for this challenge?
Nothing can prepare you for war. But on a daily basis, everything you did before actually helps you to move forward. I spent 18 years working for The Elena Pinchuk Foundation, the largest private foundation in Ukraine. We did mass campaigns in media to change attitudes toward people with HIV/AIDS, for instance. So I have experience in this area.
We also have a fantastic team of people, because Andrey Stavnitser, who came up with this idea, his background is in business. He’s a fantastic networker and financer and idea generator. You know, he never sleeps. He travels all over the world, meeting with people, talks about Ukraine. He brings the business component into the project. And also Philipp Grushko works closely with Andrey on the business side. Anastasia Zhook is our communications director and we just hired a star manager from a huge logistics firm, formerly from MIT, who is putting together the prosthetics lab. We find the best people, put them together, and make this thing work.
Can I ask where you’re from in Ukraine?
I was born in Donetsk. That’s occupied territory now. I haven’t been there since 2014. It’s my home city. And I was raised in Crimea as well; it’s where I spent all my childhood. And I haven’t been there since 2014 either.
I know people from all through Donetsk and the rocket attacks in 2014. They basically lost everything. The Russians were chasing them. The biggest concentration of temporarily displaced people in Ukraine was in Irpin and Bucha. Then those people had to flee again, so for the second time, they lost everything. They had to escape to Poland or to Europe.
I consider myself being lucky because I didn’t lose a child. I don’t have to take kids to the bomb shelter on a daily basis. I did two escapes and now I’m back to Kyiv. But some people just cannot do that again because they have no place to go and they have no resources to return to Kyiv. They’re just out of resources. They are absolutely drained emotionally and financially, doing that several times.
How important has social media been in your work?
All the information exchange actually happens in social media. But it’s been a struggle. At the beginning of the current invasion, there were a lot of Ukrainian bloggers who were writing in Russian, helping us communicate with Russians, but they just lost their audience. People in Russia just don’t want to hear about what’s going on.
So we try to expose what is happening in Ukraine on social media. But the majority of the pictures that we try to post on Facebook or Instagram are considered to be sensitive content and are blocked. It’s our normal life now to see dead bodies on all the streets, kids killed. How does this story get told so the world can see it? But we keep trying.
As Ukrainians, we want to talk about this on every corner, every opportunity. Because Ukraine is the bravest country. We will get the job done. I’m absolutely sure. Standing here, at the railway station in Lviv, I see dozens of military people who are going to the east. They are tired. They are bruised. But their eyes are bright and they are absolutely ready to go. These people understand that they if they die tomorrow, they die for right cause.
Compared to Russians, who don’t understand what are they fighting for, we are here to actually stand for our country, for our independence and the right to choose. So, we are not tired, but ready to go, as long as it takes and as much as it takes.