Wheelchairs for Ukraine
June 2008 Trip
Wheelchairs Benefit Needy in Chernivtsi
The ninth Wheelchairs for Ukraine distribution successfully delivered the gift of mobility, dignity and independence to needy people in Chernivtsi. CAAU Vice President Yarko (Jerry) Maryniuk, M.D. shares his personal experience as a distribution team member.
The June 2008 wheelchair distribution process in Chernivtsi was an overwhelming success!
As with the prior eight distributions, we can report the quantitative accomplishment of this year’s distribution: 170 wheelchairs, 70 walkers, 70 pairs of crutches, 25 bedside commodes, 2 hospital gurneys and a whole lot more. In this article I’d like to supplement the usual report with my impressions of the complexity, challenges and rewards of this incredibly worthwhile project.
Preparing for the Trip
During the months preceding the distribution, I spent several sessions as a volunteer at the UCP/Wheels for Humanity (UCP/WFH) warehouse in North Hollywood that began to shatter my simplistic preconceived notions about the whole process.
First, I learned that there wasn’t just one type of wheelchair. For our trip, we took at least five different types of wheelchairs, and each of these came in multiple sizes. Advance coordination with the consignee in Chernivtsi was required to identify the specific needs of the intended recipients, select appropriate wheelchairs and adapt them as necessary.
I watched and assisted the volunteers at the Wheels for Humanity warehouse as they prepared the wheelchairs. The chairs were cleaned; bearings greased or replaced, all moving parts tested, then tuned or replaced as needed. Finally, they were partially taken apart, boxed and shipped in March 2008.
Five Busy Days in Chernivtsi
Two specialists (an occupational therapist, Eva Ma and a wheelchair technician, Tom Bond, evaluated each recipient’s medical and orthopedic condition, matched the profile with the appropriate style of wheelchair, and then modified that wheelchair to accommodate the recipient’s specific disability and deformity. In the most complicated cases, this process took up to 1 ½ hours in very cramped quarters that may have been accessible by carrying wheelchair and tools up six flights of stairs. Watching Eva and Tom working in these conditions was like watching a complex ballet that was choreographed to be performed in a room the size of a closet.
David Richard, the president and founder of Wheels for Humanity accompanied us on the trip. He organized and oversaw the entire process from the warehouse to the delivery of the last wheelchair, and helped fit recipients to wheelchairs.
The CAAU team members included Luba & Wally Keske, Dmytro & Irena Cyhaniuk and me. We paid for our own travel expenses to assist with multiple functions, including unloading and assembling all the equipment, registration, data collection, photography and interpreting for the non-Ukrainian speaking team members.
We had the honor of having wheelchair athlete Victor Konovalov, an American of Ukrainian heritage, included on the team. Victor (“Vik the Brick”), who is paralyzed below the waist, demonstrates that a devastating injury does not make one an invalid or disabled, but causes a person to have special needs. He has not only stayed a productive member of society, he has excelled to the point of being the five time US Wheelchair Bodybuilding National Champion.
In Chernivtsi, Victor met with local wheelchair activists who are working to improve the accommodations made for wheelchair-bound people on a local and national level. He also presented two clinics at which he taught wheelchair athletes and those athletically inclined about weightlifting and proper nutrition.
Our job could not have been done without the local team in Chernivtsi. Ruslan Kudrynsky, an administrator of the local city Children’s Hospital and the head of the humanitarian fund “Dytynstvo”, was the consignee and main project coordinator in Chernivtsi. Dr. Tatiana Zhubchyk, the head of the center “Turbota” where we did all of the wheelchair fittings, organized our workplace, our transportation to patients’ homes and arranged for medical and other support staff.
Addressing Accessibility Issues in Ukraine
In Lviv, we found only one street corner that had wheelchair access ramps, while in Chernivtsi, we frequently had to help lift Victor up and down stairs and even had to change hotels, because the one at which we had reservations didn’t even have a bathroom that could be accessed by a wheelchair.
The problems with wheelchair access are part of a host of other issues that illustrate the relatively meager response of the Ukrainian government and medical system to mobility issues.
The socialized medical system in Ukraine has not yet fully recognized the need to provide wheelchairs to physically challenged individuals, and training among medical professionals in this area is inadequate.
To raise awareness on these issues, the press was invited to view the distribution process in Chernivtsi. Through media attention, we’re hoping to publicize the inadequacies of the current system and educate the people and the government about the responsibilities and opportunities to improve the quality of life for physically challenged individuals.
Wheelchairs for Ukraine – What’s Next
I’m hoping that CAAU can continue participating in the wheelchair distribution program, though our costs may increase to $25,000 per shipment. I’m also hoping that CAAU can stimulate interest in changing the way Ukraine deals with their injured and disabled citizens. These future steps can only be done through the active assistance of our members and supporters.
Yarko (Jerry) Maryniuk, M.D.
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