"During the evacuation, we faced heavy shelling, with the ground literally flying into the car"
The Ukrainian people's struggle for liberation has lasted for centuries. Brave Cossacks defended our lands in the past. Today, this is the Armed Forces of Ukraine who defend our country, together with volunteers, rescuers, and medics. During a full year of war in Ukraine, over 100 medical workers have died.
Screams and blood-stained stretchers have become an everyday routine for paramedics, who see it as their main duty to survive and save others. Among them is Orysia Masna, who, together with her crew, is constantly on high alert, providing first aid and evacuating both military and civilians from the most dangerous areas.
- Orysia, could you tell us which regions you work in, and what kind of help you provide?
We have always worked in the Donetsk region. The last rotation was in Bakhmut and near Pisky. It was quite dangerous there. We also worked with our Marine Corps battalion in Soledar, which was the most difficult since the Russians were determined to seize part of our territory.
I'm sure everyone knows about the battle for Soledar. During the day, we were inside a house, which was occupied by the evening of the next day. There were numerous casualties. During the evacuation, we faced heavy shelling, with the ground literally flying into the car's hood.
There were nights when our troops went on the offensive, and we were unable to evacuate the wounded due to heavy gunfire.
We directly assist the wounded, either being the first or second point of contact. We pick them up from the battlefield or they are brought to us in armored vehicles.
- Can you describe the most challenging ethical decision you face when evacuating a wounded person?
It's the sorting process. We have to determine who we evacuate and who will have to wait. It's like playing God with someone's life and future. This is the most challenging aspect for me because every decision has significant consequences.
- Do you recall the first person you rescued?
It was a woman in extreme agony. I was certain she would perish in our arms. However, we miraculously managed to save her, and she survived. Later, the hospital notified us that she had passed away. My colleague and I had already mourned her in our thoughts. I remember lying on the grass when a butterfly fluttered by. I thought it was her soul visiting me. Then I received a call informing me that she was alive. My colleague and I were stunned.
- What are the main challenges you face while being in the hottest spots on the front lines?
The main challenges I face are threats to life, which are a constant occurrence. I have noticed that the longer I am exposed to dangerous conditions, the more my perception of what is considered "normal" becomes blurred.
During one of our unplanned evacuations, we were unexpectedly called upon for assistance. Initially, everything seemed calm and we didn't anticipate any gunfire. We approached heavy equipment, because there was only one road, a stop, and this stop could cost us our lives. We suddenly came under attack. It was then that I realized that my driver was perhaps showing his inner "Fast & Furious" character. Despite the chaos, we managed to escape and evacuate around 15 wounded. It was an incredibly difficult experience.
- What are the most critical needs of paramedics and how can the public support you?
Firstly, it's essential to learn tactical medicine. You never know when you might end up on the front line or in the midst of an evacuation. Being well-prepared will not only save your own life but also provide us with more time.
Secondly, I want to emphasize the critical role played by Hospitallers. We are volunteer medics who work on a completely unpaid basis. As we are not part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, we do not receive any supplies from the government, including medicines, vehicles, or ammunition. Instead, we rely solely on donations from the public. Therefore, we invite everyone to support us with donations.
- Is there a story that cuts straight to your heart?
Of course! There are many stories like that, but I want to tell the one that has resonated the most. This story concerns flowers.
After being examined in the hospital, one wounded ran to a flower shop and bought a huge bouquet to thank me. He searched for me and handed it to me personally. I was shocked to see him with the bouquet bigger than our heads.
I remember another story. Back then, we had quite a few wounded. About 20 of them, but my memory is fuzzy after all these events. We sorted them, and then I started helping one of the guys. He had a severe forearm injury. At that time, while I was giving him an intravenous drip, he was saying something, but I didn't understand him at first. But then I realized he asked me to give him a rosary from the armor. I don't know about his current condition, but that moment made it clear that the guy would be okay.
- In your social media, you often tell about situations with people staying in cities despite constant shelling and destruction. Did you have a chance to discuss this decision with them?
We had to talk to them because we often encountered wounded civilians near their homes. I've identified two reasons for this.
The first is that they have nowhere to go. Most of them are elderly people, for example, an old man who is looking after his sick wife. They don't know how to get out.
The second are people who rely on the Armed Forces of Ukraine. They believe everything will be okay if the military is with us. One woman said she wouldn't go anywhere as long as the army was here. Once they start to leave, she will think about where to go. One lady said that the house nearby, not her home, was destroyed, so she wouldn't go anywhere.
- Were there cases when the severely wounded, who couldn't understand what would happen next, asked you to fulfill a request?
Most people, including us, believe that they will survive under any circumstances.
But one guy asked us to keep hold of him because he had to attend his wife's birth. He was severely wounded and had multiple wounds. His motivation may have helped him later.
- What is the worst moment of waiting for a paramedic?
The trip with the wounded on the way to the hospital. When you are traveling in the back of a truck with severely injured people and can't see the road, you don't realize how much time is left to get to the hospital. When the driver says, "just five more minutes, we'll be there soon", those five minutes feel like an eternity.
Also, the worst waiting is for those killed in action.
- For you personally, is being a paramedic your calling or a sense of moral obligation to people?
Look, for example, I can't bake cakes. For me, it's much more complex than providing medical care. However, not everyone can be a medic in the front zone. Not everyone can handle seeing blood and work accompanied by the screams of soldiers when you realize that it's probably over, but you give hope. I consider it a calling. But now, we don't choose whether it’s a calling because the country lacks soldiers and doctors. We need to make rotations, but who will do it?
No one knows for sure how long this war will last. That's why everyone needs to get ready because the enemy won't ask, "Who is ready to go to war?"
- Your social media have become a very honest photo diary of the war. How do you see the "victory" shot?
The first thing that comes to mind is something funny. It's a victory, after all! But in this case, it should be the other way around.
This Victory Day will be a day of remembrance for all those who sacrificed their lives — those whose lives were unjustly and tragically taken for the sake of Victory.
- Orysia, you’re very positive, evidenced by your communication style on social media and your emotions during our conversation. Tell us, is this due to a desire to encourage people, or does it help them to perceive modern realities?
I'm just naturally optimistic. I don't do it for a specific purpose; it just comes out automatically. Even during the evacuation, I usually make sharp jokes, so the wounded immediately come to their senses.
Also, it helps me a lot to cling to the thought that it will all end one day.