Im­pos­si­ble is noth­ing

The Ukrainian Week - - SOCIETY -

Olek­sandr Stet­senko is a pros­thet­ics en­gi­neer and di­rec­tor at Or­toTech Ser­vice. He has worked in the area for 25 years and is based in Kyiv. He grad­u­ated from the Kyiv Poly­tech­nic In­sti­tute as a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer, but never got to de­fend­ing his grad­u­a­tion the­sis: he and seven other Ukraini­ans were in­vited for a year-long study in Ger­many un­der the Crafts­man­ship Ex­change Between the Soviet Union and FRG pro­gram. Once he re­turned to Ukraine, Olek­sandr set up his own pros­thet­ics pro­duc­tion. In 2006, he grad­u­ated from the Bio­chem­i­cal Sys­tems de­part­ment at the Kharkiv Ra­dio Elec­tron­ics Univer­sity. Ever since the war in the Don­bas be­gan, Olek­sandr has been mak­ing ar­ti­fi­cial limbs for the Ukrainian military. In fact, The Ukrainian

Week jour­nal­ists found him do­ing just that when they ar­rived for the in­ter­view. Olek­sandr was mak­ing test mod­els of ar­ti­fi­cial limbs for a ser­vice­man of Brigade 54 to make his first train­ing pros­the­ses. He finds his work in­ter­est­ing for two rea­sons: firstly, he must and can help the in­jured military; se­condly, this work helps him learn and im­prove equip­ment.

“We used to do many other things in the past. We sold or­tho­pe­dic goods, ban­dages, breast forms. Our mar­ket used to have lit­tle of these in the past and we had con­tacts with for­eign part­ners, so we could bring in the goods nec­es­sary for our peo­ple. Then, com­pe­ti­tion on the mar­ket in­creased, China came in, Ukrainian pro­duc­ers popped up. So we switched to pros­the­ses fully even be­fore the war started. To­day, tech­nolo­gies are avail­able that were un­reach­able for us some years ago. They did ex­ist, but their cost was to­tally un­af­ford­able for com­mon folk. For in­stance, we sup­plied an arm pros­the­sis for a ser­vice­man that costs UAH 700,000. More costly op­tions are also avail­able, some worth over UAH 1mn. Right now, a state-funded pro­gram pays for these pros­the­ses. And it's an in­ter­est­ing op­por­tu­nity: I see the military and the help they need, and I can help them. Our work has only in­ten­si­fied be­cause we have both a learn­ing process, and new ma­te­ri­als to work with. In this area, you can never stop grow­ing,” Stet­senko shares.

Over the two years of war, nearly one hun­dred military got their limbs from Stet­senko. He as­sesses the to­tal num­ber of those in need of pros­the­ses at around 400. In the past months, as the front­line fight­ing in­ten­si­fied, more military have been com­ing to him for help.

“We also had many peo­ple in 2014, then fewer in 2015, and a newly in­creased flow from the sum­mer of 2016,” he shares. “In 2014, when our military were shelled with GRAD mis­sile sys­tems, the in­juries were more dif­fi­cult to han­dle. I re­mem­ber a guy who was miss­ing the en­tire leg. We made a spe­cial corset for him to fix the pros­the­sis. Now, more peo­ple are com­ing for arm re­place­ments. They needed them in the past as well, but we didn't know how to make such pros­the­ses. Be­cause we were mak­ing just sim­ple mod­els. And the wounded sol­diers saw elec­tronic ver­sions; the gov­ern­ment promised to send them abroad to get those limbs,” Stet­senko ex­plains. Un­der the state-run pro­gram for the Anti-Ter­ror­ist Op­er­a­tion vet­er­ans, an in­jured ser­vice­man could be sent abroad if no equiv­a­lent equip­ment was avail­able in Ukraine. Olek­sandr and his team de­cided to try and set up the pro­duc­tion of ad­vanced limbs. They found out that sim­i­lar pros­the­ses had been pro­duced in Ukraine be­fore, only with a sim­pler con­trol mech­a­nism.

“Ear­lier, a per­son could open and close the arm. It was im­pos­si­ble to lift heavy things be­cause there was no mech­a­nism to fix the ar­ti­fi­cial limb,” Olek­sandr ex­plains. “To­day, a chip in­stalled in the pros­the­sis can be pro­grammed to do dif­fer­ent things: op­er­ate fin­gers, get a full grip, lift 45 kilo­grams. A per­son can also clench the limb into a fist and do push-ups. It can en­dure the pres­sure of 90kg. Of course, this sounds nicer than it is in re­al­ity. In fact, arm pros­the­ses are still frag­ile. They break when a per­son makes a sharp or atyp­i­cal move. We had one pa­tient who fell down the stairs and broke a fin­ger on his ar­ti­fi­cial arm.” To­day, Olek­sandr is more con­fi­dent in his equip­ment. 25 years ago Ukraini­ans like him were only learn­ing, in­clud­ing with the help of their col­leagues from Ger­many.

“Our work­shop was set up with the sup­port of Mr. Kreuzer, he died al­ready. He had fought in Ukraine and lost his leg in Italy. When he came to Ukraine af­ter the Iron Cur­tain fell and saw our guys from Afghanistan, he de­cided to help. He con­tacted Kyiv-based Afghanistan vet­er­ans. They sent three Ukrainian sol­diers to get pros­the­ses in Mu­nich. At that point, we had 44 peo­ple who needed ar­ti­fi­cial limbs in Kyiv. Mr. Kreuzer cal­cu­lated that he could not get pros­the­ses for ev­ery­one in Ger­many. Then he de­cided to make a work­shop in Kyiv. He spoke to the au­thor­i­ties in Mu­nich, the Min­istry of So­cial Pol­icy in Bavaria and to our min­istry; he strug­gled to get premises ap­proved here be­cause lo­cal of­fi­cials were in­ter­ested in po­ten­tial ben­e­fits. It was 1991, the times of the Soviet Union pretty much. We had less con­fi­dence back then but we felt en­thu­si­asm. And we didn't have tech­ni­cal ca­pac­ity. The ar­ti­fi­cial limbs were sim­ple. To­day, the sit­u­a­tion is chang­ing. I can say that the state does pro­vide max­i­mum sup­port to the military. The only thing is that some­times it lags be­hind the progress of tech­nol­ogy,” Olek­sandr sums up.

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