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Kennedy School Review

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Superhumans Center: How One Prosthetics Clinic is Rebuilding Ukraine

More than 400 days ago, 39-year-old Petro Buriak was driving a truck abroad and dreaming about playing dolls with his 5-year-old daughter when his route brought him home to Ukraine.

That all changed for Buriak and 41 million Ukrainians when Russian President Vladimir Putin did the unthinkable and launched a full-scale war in Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Buriak rushed to volunteer and defend his homeland and lost both legs near Kherson. 

Since then, thousands of civilians and soldiers have been killed or maimed, hundreds of schools and hospitals destroyed or rendered unusable, and the country’s GDP dropped 30 percent in 2022. Kyiv School of Economics estimates that Moscow’s war of choice has resulted in $63 billion in damages to Ukraine’s infrastructure.

Even though the war continues with no end in sight, many conferences have already been held to prepare and plan for Ukraine’s eventual reconstruction. But the truth is, reconstruction has already begun. We at the Superhumans Center in Lviv, Ukraine, are part of that organic reconstruction process. Ukrainians aren’t waiting around for an elaborate Marshall Plan. We are taking matters into our own hands and rebuilding brick by brick, as much as we can now.

In the city of Bucha, which is synonymous with horrific war crimes, the street where civilians were tortured and killed, has been restored. A memorial at the church marks the field where several dozen bodies were found. Apart from the memorial and fence, one could be forgiven for overlooking the site as nothing more than a small city north of Kyiv. Of course, we should and will remember, and we will demand justice. But we’ve already cleaned up the site of one of the worst atrocities that we’ve seen so far.         

Economists can measure loss and project managers can assess how much time and money the reconstruction process will take, but the human losses the country has experienced concern us the most. They are incalculable and enormous.  

As a result of Russia’s wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure, more than 12,000 Ukrainians need complex operations or prosthetics now. Most patients are young and have many years ahead of them. Ukraine had previous experience dealing with older patients who required a prosthesis below the knee, but as a result of the war, most patients are under 40 and many need upper arm protheses, elbows, knees – or all the above. Patients are scattered across Ukraine, and the state has a cap on how much it can spend per patient. Obviously, the state cannot address all of these needs adequately in the middle of an ongoing war.

Into the gap stepped Ukrainian entrepreneurs and civil society leaders. In less than a year, we built a state-of-the-art medical center for war heroes and civilians in Lviv to address these needs. With a generous gift of $16.3 million from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and many other donors, we built a world-class medical center that is only one hour from the Polish border.   

We joyfully opened the Superhumans Center on April 14 in the presence of more than a dozen patients and a host of international dignitaries. We are setting the standard for a new kind of care in Ukraine. We have traveled the world looking for the best approaches to complex cases of amputation and built relationships with the best prosthetic makers.

Ukrainians no longer need to go abroad to receive excellent care. Now they can receive outstanding care near their homes, families, and in the Ukrainian language. We know that patient outcomes improve when a patient has the support of a family member nearby, and that’s part of the reason why we insisted on building in Ukraine. Patients also need easy access to their prosthetist. This is an ongoing relationship. An amputee’s weight may change, their hair color may change, but their prosthetist should not. Children in particular must have their prothesis changed frequently to account for their physical growth.     

We also know that patients do better when the care is comprehensive, and that giving a patient a state-of-the-art prosthetic device without any preparation is a recipe for disaster. A patient must mentally and physically prepare before they receive a prosthesis.

Therefore, Superhumans provides psychological support, prosthetics, and rehabilitation services free of charge to all Ukrainians wounded by war. First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska is a board member of Superhumans, and the medical center has already opened its prosthetics lab, rehabilitation department, and started providing psychological support. So far, we have served men, women and children. We also plan to start a PTSD program for children soon. Our next step is to open a second building on our Lviv campus that will house two operating theaters for complex reconstructive surgery and dorms for international doctors.

In less than a year, we have achieved something very ambitious, but we are far from finished. Ukraine doesn’t have enough medical personnel such as prosthetists and rehabilitation specialists, and its psychologists and surgeons need additional training to meet the country’s immediate needs. To do so, Superhumans will establish a National Education Center at its Lviv headquarters, and in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, it will open university branches to issue government approved certificates. It will train prosthetists, psychologists, rehabilitation specialists, and surgeons to work for Superhumans and in other medical facilities across the country.

In one year, we hope to train 100 specialists in person and up to 500 online. The National Educational Center will also train its former patients to be prosthetists, rehabilitation specialists, and psychologists. We expect up to 50 patients to get certified for a new profession in a year’s time.

That’s not all we have planned. Howard Buffett pledged to open a regional Superhumans office next, and we plan to open our first satellite office in Kharkiv. The purpose of satellite offices is to connect care with patients so as to lessen the need to travel. Satellite offices will provide prosthetic fittings, psychological services, and rehabilitation; surgery and the actual making of prosthetics will remain in Lviv. 

Much remains to be done. But more than four hundred days after Putin’s disastrous decision, we are united and determined to fight. Ukrainians overwhelmingly want President Zelenskyy to continue to resist for as long as it takes even if it means prolonging the war.

More than four hundred days after the war began, Petro Buriak is walking with Ottobock prostheses in Lviv and smiling broadly. When asked how he can go on with the obvious pain and discomfort he faces, he says, “We must. There’s no other choice.”

Every day Superhumans meets the physical needs of heroes like Petro, and every day Superhumans stands as a physical reminder that we are not afraid. Vladimir Putin massively underestimated Ukrainians. Ukraine will triumph – and our heroes will walk and even run again.

Photo credit: Superhumans Center