Vladyslav Orlov, an officer in Ukraine’s national guard, didn’t see what hit him, but the next thing he knew, the car he was traveling in last October was rolling over and in flames. He suspected Russian gun fire.
Pinned in the back seat, Orlov says he was initially unable to get out of the vehicle – his feet had been crushed by the car and his legs had been wounded by the explosion. Once he finally did, he and his team laid in the nearby grass watching the flames and figuring out their next steps, in disbelief they had survived.
“Sometimes I really don’t understand what has happened with me, I’m still somewhere on another planet,” Orlov, 27, told CNN.
February 24 will mark a year since Russia launched its war on Ukraine – and ahead lies what is widely expected to be a brutal spring of fighting. Thousands of troops and more than 18,000 Ukrainian civilians, according to the United Nations, have lost their lives, and millions have fled. Cities and infrastructure across Ukraine have been decimated by the fighting and relentless shelling.
Orlov was eventually taken to a Ukrainian hospital. He was told he may need to have at least one leg amputated or that he may never walk again, in part due to inundated hospitals and strains on resources after months of war.
He was told that the focus was to save his life, not necessarily his limbs.
“(There are) a lot of wounded guys, you know?” Orlov told CNN. “Our doctors, everybody (is) working hard like from morning to evening, working absolutely hard but (there’s) no free space, ya know? (There’s not) enough medicine because it’s war,” he said in limited English.
So began the pursuit of another option – any option.
A 4,600 mile volunteer-led journey
Ashley Matkowsky, Orlov’s American girlfriend and a videographer who had been working in Ukraine, recorded what Orlov looked like after the attack.
That video caught the attention of some US volunteers and eventually made its way to Gary Wasserson, a retired American businessman from New York who was already coordinating volunteer aid resources to the region.
“I sprung into action and started making calls in the United States,” Wasserson told CNN.
Matkowsky, meanwhile, was working with the Ukrainian government to get permission for Orlov to leave, and helped to arrange transportation to Poland. From there, Wasserson was able to get them plane tickets to New York.
Wasserson said he sponsored Orlov to come to the United States under the “Uniting for Ukraine” program, which provides a temporary pathway for Ukrainians to come to the United States for two years if they have someone who can provide them with financial assistance. Wasserson’s toughest task was “getting the attention of Homeland Security to understand the urgency of the medical issues at hand,” he said.
“For me, I just keep pushing until I find the right buttons and fortunately everything came into place,” he said.
Taking it one step at a time
Wasserson asked the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York if they’d be able to save Orlov’s legs and, optimistic they could, he was admitted.
Dr. Duretti Fufa, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in limb reconstruction, is now helping care for Orlov. The hospital is paying for his surgical costs through their charity care program, a representative told CNN.
Fufa described Orlov’s injuries as extraordinarily complex.
“The complexity comes from the fact that he had both soft tissue wounds as well as bone defects or missing bone from the blast injuries and the multiple fractures in each of the feet,” Fufa told CNN.
Since he arrived in the United States in January, Orlov has already undergone “two very lengthy procedures to begin the major step for reconstruction of both his right and his left foot” with care that has involved multiple specialists, Fufa explained.
Orlov sees the progress so far as nothing short of amazing.
“It’s completely nice now! It’s like full foot, oh my God,” he told CNN of his still very stitched up and fragile left foot.
While Fufa is optimistic about the path forward for Orlov’s feet, she is quick to point out that while reconstruction is one thing, being able to walk again is not guaranteed just yet.
“I’ve warned him that this is such a long road that I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point we hit roadblocks where it feels like this is taking too long or that this is too challenging to continue to face,” Fufa said.
Nearly a year into the war, Orlov hopes to return
It’s been nearly a year since Russia’s war in Ukraine began and Orlov wants nothing more than to be back home, defending his country.
“I wanna try, of course,” he said.
He hopes he can walk again, but his hopes for his country are much bigger than that – he said he wants the world to know this isn’t simply about two countries in conflict.
This is “not just about war in Ukraine and Russia,” he said of the women and children’s lives that have been lost or upended by the fighting. “It’s about human rights.”