In the ambulance, Mykytenko asked his name. He said it was Sasha. He had gone out to feed the stray cats when the Russian artillery shell landed. He told her he felt like something had hit him.
Ten minutes passed when Mykytenko and Yaremko put a tourniquet on Sasha’s leg, attached a drop of morphine to numb his pain, and kept him talking. All the while, parked in the middle of a field with no cover, the medics themselves were in the line of fire if another round of bombardment began. There is always the danger of “double-clicking”: Russian forces tend to hit the same place twice within an hour, eliminating a target or perhaps deliberately targeting first responders.
“When you work, you only think about the person you are treating,” Yarimko said. Of course, if we are directly bombarded, we drive to another place. But if it seems rather calm at the moment, we do what is required for the patient. Then we get out of there.”
First responders in Ukraine work some of the most dangerous jobs in this war. They are not armed or behind a fortified military post. But for the past two months, they have served on the front lines of battle with Russia, putting them in danger and only having a bullet-proof vest to protect themselves while treating the wounded.
The Washington Post remained a battalion of medics for 24 hours in Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine about 25 miles from the Russian border that has been hit hard by air and artillery strikes since the first day of the war.
The sounds of incoming and outgoing gunfire echoed around the ambulance station all day long. But Yarimko and Mikitenko’s phones remained silent until about 6:30 p.m., when they received the call that sent their ambulance into the suddenly rising dark smoke in the distance.
The shift began at eight in the morning with a lesson. Paramedics crowded into the lobby of their ambulance station to demonstrate how to properly apply a tourniquet. With the number of catastrophic haemorrhages they are now facing, a refresher was needed.
The station dog, Zhuzha, lay in the middle of the room. She’s a rescue puppy, and medics say she’s feeling pounding, looking for a place to hide from the loud explosions. Its collective masters do not have this option.
Yarimko’s day begins with a different tradition – a call from his wife. She, his two daughters and two granddaughters are now in western Ukraine, considered the safest area of the country because it is the furthest from the fighting in this eastern region. She scolded him for not calling to tell her he was fine. He’s supposed to log in every morning and every night. He said she was worried.
“Our jobs have always been dangerous and dangerous, even in peacetime,” said Bel shrugged.
Yarimko’s house is still standing, but the windows were shattered by Russian artillery shelling nearby. In the early days of the war, he and others lived in the ambulance station – sleeping on creaking spring mattresses upstairs. He has since moved to a friend’s house when he’s not on duty.
He’s a veteran and steady hand at this station. Yarymko, a former military combat medic, has experience from the 2014 Ukrainian conflict with Russia – the war between Kyiv forces and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. He tends to take the tougher calls, as his colleagues have gotten younger since the start of this war.
Many ambulance workers have left the city, moved to safer areas in the country or outside altogether. That left a large group of 23-year-old medical students motivated by more work and responsibility.
Now all of them have pictures on their phone of shrapnel they saw in the places they were called to.
“It was very difficult at first,” said Anastasia Boulder. “I couldn’t get around the fact that in the twenty-first century, some crazy neighbor could attack you. But now you come out every time and think, ‘Who, if not you?’ Who would do this if we didn’t?”
Those early days of the war were arduous. Doctor Dmytro Kolesnik made phone calls to destroyed apartment buildings where his childhood friends lived. While trying to focus on treating the wounded, he discovered where he and his companion had been sitting and sipping a beer together on a bench. Only now the seat is gone and his friend’s house is destroyed.
Nazar Mareshchenko, also 23, was still shaking from fits that sent the ambulance straight into the shelling. Yet, even the most routine operations – to help an elderly person with a minor illness or tend to a drunk person – have an extra layer of danger to them. But there are fewer calls to ambulances, too, because people are often afraid to leave their homes.
“Fear is normal,” Kolesnik said. “We are just as scared as normal people, but we have to keep doing our job to save as many people as possible.”
Paramedics are superstitious about anyone wishing them “good luck” before running. Since the start of the war, the World Health Organization has reported at least 175 attacks on health care facilities, including ambulances.
At the site of the Kharkiv attack on Wednesday night, the goal was for Yaremko and Mikitenko to take their patient to the hospital within 30 minutes of the call. As the ambulance approached the building, residents directed it to the back of the building.
The police who arrived at the scene first told Yarimko that the first man had died, so he went directly to Sasha. In the ambulance, Yarimko asked his patient if he was in any pain.
Sasha replied, “I don’t feel anything.”
“That’s good,” Yarimko said.
Sasha was a civilian victim, but they took him to the local military hospital because he had more experience with shrapnel injuries. The ever-changing barriers of military checkpoints pose another obstacle: the ambulance driver was expecting to reach the hospital in one way but had to turn around and look for a different way after hitting an unexpected barrier.
They made it at the right time. Sasha is expected to live, albeit part of his right leg is gone. Another ambulance crew arrived at the scene later to pick up the dead man’s body. He was the only civilian dead in town for the day – a fairly quiet day in the war here.
“As much as you can, get used to this,” Yarimko said.
Back at the station, Mykytenko carefully cleaned and disinfected the car while Yaremko filled out the accident report. When she finished, she stood with her hand on her hip and took a deep breath. The single call was exhausting and her back ached.
She cleaned her shoes with a metal mesh in front of the station entrance – in case there was still blood – and went inside to wait for the next call.
Maria Avdeva contributed to this report.