Impossible is nothing
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.