Back in 2005, Ukrainian cardiologist Borys Todurov carried out emergency heart operations on children from post-war Kosovo. The invasion of Ukraine has caused his patients, now grown-up, to look back in gratitude.
Borys Todurov has just finished an operation at the main public cardiology clinic in Kyiv, despite the constant threat of power outages.
Like many other hospitals all over Ukraine, the capital’s clinics have been struggling to keep working amid Russian attacks on the country’s electricity system.
“We lack equipment, especially essential medicines because the drug factories are bombed. But we are fighting for every single life,” he told BIRN in a Zoom interview minutes after he just finished an operation.
Todurov, who is the head of Heart Institute in Kyiv, said that the Ukrainian health system is facing grave risks.
“It’s a critical moment. We are doing some emergency operations in Kherson, but very often we have to move patients because of the Russian bombing,” he said. “Some of the hospitals have been destroyed and there is not a door or window left.”
Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine started in February 2022, Todurov’s clinic has usually been carrying out up to 12 operations per day. When the attacks on the energy system intensified during December and January, the clinic’s employees had to go to petrol stations to source fuel for its generators.
When Russian forces fire missiles, medical staff have to rush to get dozens of patients to the bomb shelter. “We try to save lives from diseases and from bombs,” Todurov said. “To be killed in a hospital is far more painful than anywhere else.”
Todurov has had to endure his own share of suffering. He shed tears as he spoke about his hometown, the southern city of Mariupol, which besieged, devastated and then occupied by Russian forces. “I lost family members, friends and other relatives. It’s so painful,” he said.
“Spiritually, it was the most difficult moment to bear seeing how Mariupol, the place where I was born and raised, is being destroyed. It was a great pain,” Todurov recalled.
‘They were running out of time’
Todurov said that since the full-scale invasion started, he has been receiving messages of support from former patients from outside Ukraine. Over the years, he has been involved in several humanitarian medical missions, including visits to Iraq in 2002 and Kosovo in 2005.
One of the patients he operated on in Kosovo, Elvira Ademi, wrote to him in a Facebook message recently: “Doctor, I will be grateful forever for saving my life.”
When Tudorov travelled to Kosovo in 2005, the country was still in the post-war reconstruction phase, rebuilding from the ground, and many people still didn’t have passports. “Back then it was a difficult time. I received a special permit at that time [from the UN mission UNMIK] and entered under the escort of KFOR [NATO’s Kosovo force] troops,” he explained.
He had been told by doctors about the dire situation in Kosovo hospitals after the war and a local cardiologist helped identify some cases in need of intervention. Tudorov decided to take three children, two Albanians and one Serb, back to Kyiv for operations.
“I understood they were running out of time and their life was in danger,” he said he realised moments after he examined the children. “We decided to intervene quickly. They were suffering from serious heart problems.”
Two weeks later, the children arrived for treatment at the cardiology clinic Todurov runs in Kyiv with the expenses covered by the Ukrainian institution.
Initially, he recalled, the children’s parents saw each other as wartime enemies.
“I remember when we brought them into the clinic the mothers didn’t want to talk to each other. It was something impossible for them,” he explained.
Several days later he saw that things had started to change: “The children had learned some words in each other’s language.”
Then he observed that the relationship had thawed significantly.
“When we operated on the first girl, the Albanian girl, the Serb mother helped and took care of her mother all the time and there was no more hesitation,” he said.
“I saw how she put her hand on her head and said to her not to cry. When we did the third operation, they communicated like close friends.”
After the treatment, which lasted for more than three weeks, Tudorov said that he and his staff escorted them to the airport and felt that a “kind of bridge” was created between them.
“I saw how the women and children hugged each other at the airport. Many of our medical staff said, ‘We did what the UN and NATO mission could not do until then.”
‘We must keep the peace’
Elvira Ademi, a Kosovo Albanian who now lives in Germany, was one of Todurov’s child patients in 2005.
“I was a child but I still have vivid memories from that time despite the fact I didn’t understand many of the things that were happening to me,” she told BIRN.
“As I was growing up and my mother told me about those moments she was waiting for my death, I understood our story better,” she added.
Ademi, who was five at the time, remembers how the mothers and children who were put in the same room said nothing to each other at first because of the ethnic divide.
“It was a time when the consequences of the war were still fresh. My mother told me how hard it was to communicate, not because of the language, because my mother spoke Serbian, but because of the huge abyss that was left by the war,” she said.
“Then we children started to play with each other and found a way to communicate through our toys, our play. Then I remember our mothers started to talk.
Ademi expressed hope that Kosovo and other countries will help Ukrainian children who are suffering because of the war.
“My mother very often speaks about that difficult trip and also about how doctor Todurov saved my life,” she said.
Todurov said that he wanted to do something for the children of Kosovo after being affected emotionally by the war in 1999. He argued that “each of us must do something” to maintain peace.
“Adults speak in different languages but children cry with the same voice,” he said. “We must keep the peace for the sake of the children.”