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Założycielka ochotniczego batalionu medycznego "Hospitallers" Jana Zinkevych: "Podczas całej wojny ewakuowaliśmy 23 000 rannych" (eng)

Yana is a legend of this war. And this is no exaggeration. Perhaps even this word is not enough to convey the full depth of what Yana has done for Ukraine and continues to do for Victory. Talking and recalling those who went to war as children, we noted with great sorrow that very few of them are left. And Yana is one of them.

10 years of war have shaped Yana as a person and organizer of a powerful medical movement. It crystallized in her the very character and iron will that kept her going when she was involved in a terrible accident and suffered a spinal fracture, resulting in her losing the ability to walk. When this happened, it seemed that Yana could not fully return to leading the unit. But she continued leading the "Hospitallers" even while in the hospital. Only she knows what it cost her. And all this while she was also carrying a child!

When Yana was offered to try her hand in politics, she agreed. She went through the elections and has been a member of the Ukrainian parliament for almost five years. That is, she embodies the idea that "The country should be built by those who fought, who saw the war, who returned from the frontline." The only thing is that Yana has not yet returned from the frontline.


- Do your paramedics have rotations?

- Every two weeks.

- Why exactly two weeks?

This is the optimal period during which people can take vacations from work or studying. Missing two weeks is not a big deal. Those who have formed teams agree on a certain period and go to the evacuations together.

- Do you have enough people?

- We don't have enough medics. Overall, though, we now have a long waiting list to join the battalion. We haven't taken anyone for six months, so the line has grown.

- Do professionals also come?

- Fewer now. Most are either already with us or have already chosen their place of service.

- Only your service has a whole evacuation bus that transports several dozen wounded at a time, including severe cases. Who came up with the idea of such a bus?

- I did. We were given a bus that was previously used for vaccinations. In Germany or Austria, it was used to visit villages and small settlements. It was already equipped with lying places. People would lie down and be vaccinated. When I saw this bus, I thought: why not use it as a resuscitation bed? We just needed to equip it with additional equipment, and we did. It has respiratory equipment, heart monitors, and a patient monitor. Each place is equipped with oxygen, and several beds have artificial ventilation. So we can transport light, medium, and severe cases. We transport 20-25 people per evacuation.

- Were there skeptics among the doctors before the first trip?

The bus was initially met with skepticism, especially after it was involved in an accident—a truck was standing in the middle of the road in the dark.

- How did that happen?

- The bus was driving on the highway, which was still a safe area, and suddenly, there was a truck without lights in the middle of nowhere... Our driver swerved to the left as much as he could, but still, the right side of the bus was damaged. At that moment, "Avstriyka" hit her head and died...

- How long did that first bus serve?

- It managed to work for maybe a month or two.

- How many of your paramedics have died in the war?

- 24 people – we count both those who died in civilian life under other circumstances. These were different people – medics, paramedics, drivers. We pay attention to their families and keep in touch with them. The situation with "Avstriyka" is very painful for me. I also constantly think back to "Smurfik." He was our youngest paramedic who died, only 20 years old. This happened near Mariupol in the village of Vodiane. He received a severe head wound, and our crew managed to evacuate him to Mariupol. Later, he was transferred to Dnipro, where he died a few days later...

- I remember the whole battalion was shocked at the time.

- Yes, he was our golden boy, and it was very hard to lose him.

During the preparation of this interview, the "Hospitallers" suffered more losses. Serhiy Kaznadiy, friend "Hera," and Oleksandr Kucheryavenko, friend "Kuzma," died during a mission. "Heroes die saving others," Yana wrote on Facebook.

- Why were you sure that you needed to make a second bus? That it was necessary?

- Firstly, we could not forget "Avstriyka," we had to do it in her honor. Secondly, I understood that such a bus does a lot of work. The ambulances that transported the wounded were broken and unequipped. I felt sorry for the paramedics who used them for evacuations. Sometimes, you must be on evacuation for five to six hours to Dnipro or another city. Our bus is more comfortable, it was needed.

- And it proved itself?

- Completely. It works quietly now. Also, doctors saw the state of the wounded after our transport: all stabilized, calm, and fed. We often provided help to the wounded who hadn't eaten for three days and had no opportunity. And on the bus, there are snacks for them. You have to think about that too. When people eat, they can sleep better and calm down faster.

- And the doctors also need to eat...

- The doctors don't eat during the evacuation – there is no need and no time.

- Are there resuscitators and anesthesiologists working on this bus?

- Yes, exactly those specialists. And this bus, named after the fallen paramedic "Avstriyka" transported 3,996 people in a year. It will soon be four thousand.

- You have been meticulously keeping statistics since 2014. How many wounded have you helped in 2022? And how many wounded have you evacuated in the two years of the full-scale invasion?

- Before the full-scale invasion, we had evacuated a little over three thousand wounded. Now this number has increased to 23 thousand.

We also conduct briefings and training for the unit's medics and have courses for everyone interested. Our instructors constantly undergo advanced training and self-improvement. Everything is clearly organized with them.

- Can you say how many vehicles you have directly working on the frontline now?

- Sixteen.

- You said that your brigades not only stay at stabilization points, where the wounded are brought from the frontline but also evacuate directly from the line of fire. Why do you have access directly to the trenches?

- We work individually with each brigade. Somewhere we have access to the "red zone," somewhere to stabilization points. It depends on the unit. We are ready to work in different areas. We have people who agree to work in the "red zone," it is not threatening to them, they are calm about it. And there are people ready to work at stabilization points. Each job has its own person.

- You know well that since 2014, the red cross on a vehicle or vest has become a target for the enemy.

- Yes, medics are primarily a target for the Russians. Because if they kill a medic, the entire unit feels the loss: now there is no one to help them. And it is extremely difficult for everyone. Therefore, we try not to mark ourselves, not to identify brightly. But sometimes, from the situation and circumstances, it is clear that we are medics. We go to a certain area of the frontline, for example, after shelling or there was information about the wounded on the radio, so the Russians understand this and maximize fire on all transport.

- How are you perceived in the army?

- They have gotten used to us. Many new brigades haven't heard of us, of course. Those who have been working since 2014, of course, know us. But those who came now usually haven't heard of us. But we gradually inform them that we exist, work, can cooperate, and help. Our crews work both at stabilization points, on the frontline, in the trenches.


- Are you feared as a commander? Or respected? How do you feel?

- It's better to be respected than feared. Although some are afraid – when I was younger, I was angrier… (laughs). But it passed with the years.

- Many completely dedicate themselves to the "Hospitallers" and leave civilian jobs?

- There are those who work only with the "Hospitallers."

- How do you support them financially? Your unit is almost the only one that has remained voluntary, as it was in 2014.

- Some had a financial cushion. Some are supported by their families, and some by friends. We really don't pay our fighters. In all ten years, we have never practiced this. And we still maintain the voluntary principle of our unit.

Now, during the full-scale invasion, we try to work according to combat orders, which officially involve us. This eventually allows our paramedics to receive official status. But combat orders are very rarely given; we mostly work on a voluntary basis, as we always have.

- Why did you choose this path – not to rely on anyone? It’s quite difficult to support the unit by yourself for so many years.

- It’s about independence, the ability to rotate and change locations quickly. Not being dependent on anyone is extremely important for us. No one is chasing status here. If it comes – great. If not – it doesn’t matter, no one is pursuing it.

- Do any of the Hospitallers have state awards?

- Yes. "For Impeccable Service," "For Saving Lives," and others.

- How did you manage to get them?

- We submit petitions to the Ministry of Defense. Sometimes, they are approved.

- And what awards do you have?

- "For Merit" II and III degrees.

- Did you receive the second degree during this period, since 2022?

- No, earlier. Now I am a deputy, so I don’t receive anything.

In 2015, Yana Zinkevych was one of the first to receive the non-state highest award – the silver trident "People's Hero of Ukraine."

- Have your fighters had to participate in combat?

- Not now. But all of us undergo weapons training. As the war has shown, any situation can arise. Three of our medics were captured in the Kherson region, four in Mariupol. Additionally, we retrieve wounded people from the frontline with weapons. One needs to know how to handle it.

- Have they been exchanged?

- Not all yet. Two guys – friend "Dream" and friend "Bison" – have been in captivity for two years.

- Where did you get the confidence at 18 that you could organize an entire service and lead older people? How did you know it would work?

- There was no confidence, there was an initiative, and there was an opportunity to show leadership. And I showed it as much as I could.

- Did you feel like a leader before this? Did you know you had it in you?

- No, I didn’t know. I was a calm child, but I had no organizational or leadership traits.

- You didn’t gather peers around you at school?

- No, nothing like that.


- You have been at war for ten years. You grew up at war, you were shaped by the war. Your conscious life as an active woman happened at war. How did you change? What did you learn about yourself in these ten years?

- First of all, I grew up in this war; I saw my true capabilities – what I can do, what I am capable of. What I am ready for, what trials I can endure. Over these ten years, there were many different periods. There were moments when I felt like giving up, but I saw that people followed me, so I understood that I couldn’t leave them and stop the work I had been doing for so many years.

- You knew exactly that there would be a Russian invasion in 2022...

- Yes. I was preparing. When Russian troops started gathering at the border, and this began in April 2021, we understood that we needed to prepare. We actively raised funds and bought helmets, bulletproof vests, medical supplies, backpacks – everything we could. I gave it my all and did everything possible with our resources. I had all the people prepared by regions. Everyone knew where to gather and how to get there. Everyone understood what needed to be done. Although initially, most didn’t believe in an invasion, only a few did. But everyone was preparing.

- Where did you get that confidence?

- Probably intuition. Over all these years at war, my intuition has developed strongly; I feel certain events that may happen, I feel how the situation may develop. And so I trust myself.

Such thorough preparation allowed us to get to work and operate in many areas immediately. We were one of the best-equipped medical units then. On the contrary, we shared with others; our hub in Mykhailivskyi was open to everyone. Many people from different units came to us, and we provided them with gear, medicine, and even clothes because many had nothing. And in the first days of the full-scale invasion, I bought everything necessary for several million hryvnias at "Militarist." At that time, Kyiv probably cursed me because I had emptied the store completely.

I bought needed stuff for 300 people, then 200, then 300 again —all this in the first week. But we were all dressed and equipped. I also dressed all the fighters who came to us.

- Do you remember from which direction you took the first wounded? And how shocking was it for you that the Russians actually advanced on Kyiv?

- There was no shock at all. I knew, I felt to the day, that it would be around February 24-25. And our first wounded were from the Hostomel direction. So we immediately got involved in that direction. We initially worked with a few crews, then with more, and then created a stabilization point. The wounded were different. There was a big flow, but we managed.

- Did you sleep the first week?

- Practically no. I woke up at five or six in the morning and started working, and went to bed at twelve or one at night when it was dark and too cold to work. Most of the work was done outside, such as assembling crews, etc. This lasted probably all of March. There were a huge number of calls and messages, I had to work with my team all day, and then sit down and read, respond to messages, contact people who wanted to help or join us. Every day at nine in the morning, I interviewed those who came to our unit. They came to the headquarters and waited for me; I talked to each of them about joining the battalion or getting involved in another way. So March was very busy.

There are legends about your work capacity—that you can work all night and stay focused. Even right after treatment in Israel, when you returned, you were already pregnant but continued to do all the work for the unit. Is this something you developed?

- I didn’t have that in school. And I had no experience between school and war – I went straight to war after school. It’s probably just a character trait. It’s still there but shows less now because I’m getting older… (said 28-year-old Yana).


- Tell us what happened this winter, why the doctors had to put you in a medically induced coma.

- It started in the fall. I had health complications due to stress. I was getting IVs, and during one procedure, they infected my blood. I went into septic shock. They had to put me in a medically induced coma; I spent a month in that state. They gave me antibiotics, and my organs began to fail one by one. There was a high risk of death. The chances of survival were very, very low. But apparently, my inner strength showed itself. Even though I was completely out of it, I still overcame it.

- Do you remember the moment you woke up? Or were you waking up and "falling asleep" again?

- Probably the first thing I felt was fear. Because when you wake up after a medically induced coma, you are afraid of everything a little bit. It's hard to adapt because you haven’t had any stimuli for a month. But, in principle, I was already back to normal within a week. Of course, I was in a deep depressive state because I had to learn to sit in bed and turn on my other side again; all my muscles had atrophied. I lost 10-15 kilograms, all the muscles "disappeared." It was extremely difficult, and that led to a deep depression. After the hospital, I spent another month in intensive care and went for rehabilitation. There, I became a little more active, and it became easier. I began to be more independent, and my mood also improved.

- But was there the surprise of "Oh, I’m alive, thank God!"?

- The realization that I could have died came later.

- It’s not the first time you were on the edge...

- This is the second time. But if I count different moments, probably more. It seems I still have some unfinished missions in life because I keep getting brought back to life.

Now, I try to take better care of my health. Before, I was so busy that I constantly postponed my doctor visits. Everything was delayed, and I didn't focus on my health. Now it's different.

- How important is it to you that you have Bohdanka?

- Bohdanka is my responsibility. She needs me. No one can ever replace a mother. Although I have wonderful support from my mom and stepfather, who take care of Bohdanka. But I understand that a mother is a mother, and she must be in a child's life. So, when I struggle, I find the strength to move forward for her sake.

- Is she already a first-grader?

- Yes, she's finishing first grade. She is with my mom in the Rivne region. It's much safer there than in Kyiv, so I'm at ease about her.

- Did they go abroad during the initial acute period?

- We had a plan for that. My mom had a prepared home in western Ukraine where they were supposed to go. In addition, there were options to go abroad, so my stepfather sent them off and joined the battalion three days after the full-scale invasion began.

- Is your stepfather also in your unit?

Yes, he manages the vehicle fleet. He is responsible for all the cars, fuel, and fuel cards.

- You mentioned that he was wounded…

- Yes, he was wounded when Kyiv was almost surrounded - a gunshot wound to the arm. But he quickly returned to us after treatment. And now he is constantly with us.

- What is the greatest miracle in your life? Would you say it's Bohdanka?

- Probably, I would. Bohdanka is the greatest miracle in my life.


- Another important event is about to happen in your life. During the war, you have not only lost or found yourself as a manager and organizer but also built your personal life.

Yes, I met a man with whom we will soon start a new family. We have been together for six years, and Bohdanka considers him as her father. Illya and I will soon get married.

- It was obvious that it had to be someone from your unit. But it is not. Where is he from?

- He is not from our unit; he is a scout who served in one of the infantry units.

- How did you meet?

- During one of my rotation trips to the front line. We were going to Shyrokyne. He is a friend of my driver. "Hans" suggested that he join us. He had been out of the army for about two months. We immediately found common ground and got together within a few days, starting to live together. Illya helps me; he drives me to work, meetings, and various events every day. He drives me to rotations if I go to the frontline. So, he is always with me.

- When you met, you were already unable to walk. Was there a moment when you thought, "I won't find anyone because who would need me like this?"

- I had such thoughts. I thought I would never meet anyone after my divorce because, after such an experience, you don't want anything anymore. And the disability… There were fears: who would love me like this? There was such self-torture. But Illya managed. And it wasn't an obstacle for him. He loves me as I am.

Are you planning a wedding? It seems the first wedding didn't happen, but there was a live proposal on one of the TV channels. Have you reassessed such publicity in relationships?

- If the marriage had been successful, that experience might have been positive. And the publicity wouldn't have harmed anything. But unfortunately (or fortunately), the marriage didn't work out, so the experience was not very pleasant. Now we are not planning anything big, we will meet with close family and friends. It will be as quiet as possible. Honestly, I am looking forward to it. And I am confident that this experience will be positive. I feel like a happy, loved woman.

- You have been in a wheelchair for eight years. How adapted are Ukrainian cities for people like you? Every year, more people have prostheses. Is the world changing to meet their needs?

- Unfortunately, I see that cities are unadapted. The smaller the city, the less adapted it is. Big cities have at least started to adapt a little; there are some crossings and markings for people who can't see. But this is still a very, very small percentage of crossings and sidewalks. I understand that this is not yet changing for the better. I clearly see for myself that without a companion, I wouldn't be able to move around Kyiv calmly because you constantly encounter either steps, a building without an elevator, or you have to get to the elevator via steps.

Sometimes, journalists ask this question: What would you change in your life? Have you ever considered how you would like to live if there were no war?

- Honestly, I never imagined what it would be like without war. It's hard for me to imagine. I would even say it's impossible. I don't regret my experience. Yes, of course, it's hard that there is a war, that it takes lives, that every day is a challenge for each of us. But this is my experience, and I am grateful for it.

- At the base, many people greet you, want to shake your hand, people who came to serve and learn in your unit. Do you feel like a legend at all?

- I don't. I never felt popular or famous. Of course, sometimes there are echoes of this: people recognize me on the streets, approach, and thank me. But I've never had that internal feeling.

- Of those who came to the war at the age of eighteen in 2014, it seems that only a few are left…

- Yes, there were few of us back then, and only a few like me remain.

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