Dentistry in war-torn Ukraine
Operating during blackouts, extracting teeth on a battlefield, bombed laboratories; the Ukrainian dental profession confronts terrible odds
“It’s our people’s war,” say Ukrainians, precisely defining their attitude towards the Russian invasion. People from all backgrounds have enlisted in the military. Dental professionals were among them, expanding their scopes of practice to become servicemen, volunteer clinicians, builders and translators – turning community outreach into a moral obligation; joining the front in the nation’s bid for victory against the aggressors.
The figure of speech ‘armed to the teeth’ acquires a literal meaning in Ukraine. Since joining the army or local territorial defence, dental professionals have had to learn new skills, of combat. But, after the first months of military service, dentists, oral surgeons and lab technicians are once again needed in their profession; performing medical interventions, even in the war zone.
I am so accustomed to the air attacks, that I can distinguish the sounds of different missiles
Dr Maksym Bondar
“We have to extract severely decayed teeth right on a battlefield. It’s sad, but the amount of the wounded and dead does not permit us to allocate time for routine dental treatments,” said Kostiantyn Abramovych, an army captain, who was previously a civilian dentist. He joined the army in 2014, heading a branch of its medical service. After Russia’s full-scale Russian invasion last year, he became commander of a rapidly expanded medical unit. Resources and expertise are drawn from wherever they are available.
”Our battalion’s oral surgeon-soldier has joined the ranks with his own surgical instruments, said Dmytro Ivanyuk, a former dental lab technician and now an army division commander. “A dentist from a nearby village has lent a dental unit and autoclave. People have donated money to purchase necessities required. This collaboration is so successful that we have an ambition to treat not only acute dental pain, but also to start implantology soon.”
Despite the risks, such teamwork of the military and civilian dental professionals attracts many dental volunteers to the war zone. Where army clinicians reach the limit of their capacity, dental volunteers uphold new standards of care to keep Ukrainian soldiers healthy – and alive.
“According to our statistics, five Ukrainian soldiers have perished due to dental pain. Those five deaths were indirect – being in excruciating pain, they could not concentrate on their tasks and were killed by the Russian military,” said Dr Valery Horbenko, a volunteer dentist for the dental society, Tryzub Dental.
It operates on a rotational basis; clinicians and assistants work for a week in a mobile clinic, switching the specialties, so every dental need of soldiers can be met. They drive near the frontline and treat them near battlefields. They themselves are targets for the Russians, with their vehicles destroyed in battles near Mariupol.
“During the first weeks of the invasion, when Kyiv was very close to the occupation, we used our office as an air raid shelter,” said Dr Anton Reznikov, owner of TDC Clinic in the capital. “Our dental team members and their families lived and worked here, helping military personnel and even foreign diplomats ñ repairing their teeth, when practically all dental clinics were closed. That was our
service to the country.”
“Being a native Jordanian, I had an opportunity to flee the war,” said Dr Fadi Al Tarifi, owner of New Dent Clinic in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in Western Ukraine. “But, like many other immigrants from Arabic or African countries, I stayed to support our current homeland. I envy the Ukrainians” unity and perseverance. I envy in a good way, because it’s unprecedented to me to witness such unanimous altruism of the whole nation. I cannot stay aside. Since 2014, I have offered free dental service to the Ukrainian military, police, and families of our fallen heroes.”
Dr Maryna Pidgoretska from Nikopol, a city in central Ukraine, said: ìEven blackouts don’t stop us from providing health care to our patients. We have learnt how to do dentistry without electricity and water supplies. During network outages, generators, flashlights, and water reservoirs have become essential. We cover our windows with sandbags to protect against air strikes and shelling. Despite everything, we are pretty successful in outwitting the terrible odds.”
Besides the provision of dental care, Ukrainian oral health specialists have proved themselves versatile volunteers where needed. Ihor Vovk, a former dental lab owner and currently a volunteer for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said: ìI lost my business – my dental lab in Irpin. The Russians burned all my equipment and even invaluable antique instruments from my museum collection. But I grieve for nothing compared with my neighbours ñ people mourn their children after the massacres in Irpin and Bucha.” Ihor is helping rebuild villages after the battle of Ivankiv, a key crossing over the river Teteriv.
Dr Maksym Bondar, from Mykolaiv, a city on the Black Sea, didn’t accept his rejection for military service – volunteering his services as a translator for visiting foreign military personnel. “It’s terrible and terrifying in Mykolaiv. I am so accustomed to the air attacks, that I can distinguish the sounds of different missiles. BM-21 Grad is like a firework nearby.
“On the other hand, C-300 is very scary, felt from far away, up to 1,000 metres. Exploded within 500 metres, it yields a massive wave of pressure on the chest, several in a second. The BM-27 Uragan can blow up an apartment, the C-300 can destroy two floors of a building.
“I am glad my English, German and Polish are good enough to connect Ukraine’s helpers, fight off the aggression and bring us to victory. I am happy that dentists can be civilian warriors to do something small but invaluable.”
Unfortunately, the reality of war leads such moral call-ups to tragedy. Back in 2016, Zevri Abseitov a dentist from Crimea, was imprisoned for eight years after a show trial. His name was added to a list of political prisoners of war. His wife Fatima visited him in jail recently. She said he is holding up well, despite deteriorating health. He is more concerned about his family than himself, she said, and very proud of his son, who was awarded a grant to study dentistry in Turkey.
The dangers for Ukrainian dentists, victims of Russian aggression, is not limited to forced labour or imprisonment. Hanna Beliaeva, from Kharkiv, jointed the Army in the spring of last year and was killed in July defending her home city. The tragedy in Dnipro at the beginning of this year took the lives of two dentists, Olga Usova and Iryna Salamatenko – best friends and volunteers for Tryzub Dental. They were among 46 people killed when a Russian missile hit their apartment building.
The Ukrainian dental community regards the invasion as a terrorist attack on their country and has called on colleagues around the world to boycott of Russia. They have created a registry – dentalboycott.com – listing companies who have boycotted Russia or, they say, have so far refused.
Dramatic military operations go toe-to-toe with philanthropic civilian gestures. The Ukrainian dental community has quickly turned dental medicine into medical volunteerism.
In the military and civilian settings, risking their lives, they raise standards of care, offer fee-free treatments, evolve mobile dentistry, and render a multitude of support in towns. Ukrainian dentists have discovered their new characteristics, skills and motifs for the future of their land.
The war will end – those achievements must not.
Anna Filonenko is a former journalist from Ukraine now working as a dental hygienist in America.