More Kharkiv medics receive vital training

Ukraine students' practical learning has been devastated by war

Twenty-one medical students from Kharkiv National Medical University (KhNMU) are taking part in clinical placements at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, and at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Royal Papworth Hospital, and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust. They are the second cohort to join the pioneering programme after it was launched last year.

The students have just finished the fifth year of their medical training with KhNMU, but because of the Russian invasion, and before that the Covid-19 pandemic, most of their studies have been online and so they have had very limited opportunities to work with patients in person.

Now the seven-week fully funded programme in Cambridge, co-ordinated by the University, is providing them with that crucial practical experience. They are learning from experts in a number of surgical and medical specialties, and receiving mentoring, supervision and bedside teaching from doctors. Following the placements, the students – who are staying at Homerton College – will receive a learning portfolio to support their continuing medical training with KhNMU.

Dr Paul Wilkinson, Clinical Dean at the School of Clinical Medicine, said that following the success of last year's clinical placements, the programme's partners were determined to offer more Ukrainian students hands-on, practical teaching to enhance the training they have already received.

He said: "Medicine is people-centred, and the work of a doctor is about focusing on the needs of individuals, so it goes without saying that this kind of in-person learning with patients is vital for young medics. The Kharkiv students who joined the programme last year really made the most of the opportunity, and were an absolute pleasure to work with. The new cohort of students will take the same knowledge and experience on with them, which will help Kharkiv National Medical University progress their studies."

There is no cost to students taking part in the placements, with travel and living expenses funded by a donation from global DNA sequencing company Illumina, which has its European headquarters in Cambridge, and accommodation funded by an anonymous donor.

"Illumina is proud to be partnering with the University of Cambridge in this simple, yet extraordinary action to support the training needs of the next generation of Ukrainian doctors," said Shirlene Badger, Sr. Manager, Patient Advocacy, Illumina. "We know that disruption to medical training has consequences not only for the outcomes of individual students but also in the context of conflict for the future of the country."

"We are the future generation of Ukraine; we need to rebuild our country. If we only stay focused on negative emotions, we cannot help."

Elina Sushchenko, medical student

From left, Anhelika Blahodyr, Elina Sushchenko, Danylo Khodun, and Daryna Baliuk

From left, Anhelika Blahodyr, Elina Sushchenko, Danylo Khodun, and Daryna Baliuk

Elina Sushchenko, 22, is one of the students taking part in the clinical placements this year. Born in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, Elina and her family fled to Kharkiv when Donetsk was seized by Russian-backed rebels in 2014. Since the Russian invasion in 2022 she has volunteered as a nurse at hospitals in Kharkiv.

"Kharkiv is now under attack, so at the age of 22 I've actually seen two invasions. Emotionally that has been hard, especially at such a young age.

"But I also try to look at it as a time of opportunity. We are the future generation of Ukraine; we need to rebuild our country. If we only stay focused on negative emotions, we cannot help. I hope to become a surgeon, and we need to get more skills – to study, get experience and take this back to Ukraine and help others."

Danylo Khodun, 21, another Kharkiv student, said he hopes to specialise in either oncology or surgery after he completes his medical training.

His hometown, in the Kharkiv region, was occupied by Russian forces in the early days of the war. "It was scary, you feel numb," he said. "You don’t know what to expect or what will happen tomorrow. One morning we woke up to a knock at the door, and eight men were stood there with guns. They ordered us on to the floor while they were checking everything. After a while, they left and took my friend's car. We weren't able to leave the area for two months."

After three weeks without running water, electricity, phones, or the internet, and unable to get back into Ukraine from the occupied area, Danylo left Ukraine through Russia and journeyed to Poland, where he was able to apply for a visa to travel to western Europe and continue his medical studies online.

"I want to help people to fix their problems," he said. "That’s why I'm training to be a doctor, and that's why these placements are so important."

Fellow student Anhelika Blahodyr, 23, said when her friends called her to say the invasion was under way last February it seemed unreal. "All I could think was 'what are you talking about – I've got an ophthalmology lesson at university this morning, I can’t miss it!'

"At the start we thought, 'oh, this will be just a few days and it will be over', and then you think it will be a week, and then a month, and now it's a year and a half since it started and we still can’t believe it. It's important to keep busy, to focus on your work. I'm in love with Cambridge, it's like walking through a film, with all the beautiful architecture – it's very cosy.

"I'm aiming to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology, and I'm grateful for every doctor who supports us and gives us an opportunity to learn. It really helps with our confidence and our progress as medical students."

Daryna Baliuk, 22, said she was looking forward to meeting patients and seeing how doctors work in the UK. "We’ve had such limited opportunities to learn in person. The pandemic meant everything was online from the middle of our third year. There was a brief period when we were able to return to university and attend lectures, and then the invasion happened. It turned our lives upside down completely. But we have had to reconstruct our lives and continue living, and in the middle of this search for opportunities to grow and study.

"My dream is to work in intensive care, in anaesthesiology, and I hope the skills I get here will bring me closer to my dream. We are grateful for such an opportunity and thankful for every doctor who answers our questions and helps us to build on our knowledge."

A spokesperson for Kharkiv National Medical University said: "We would like to express our gratitude and respect for the comprehensive support for our students for the second year in a row.

"As a frontline city, Kharkiv has been seeing an influx of wounded patients in its hospitals and clinics. This means that our students have limited access to patients for practical training, which could have an impact on their future education.

"Participating in training at Cambridge University is incredibly valuable for our students nowadays. It will allow them to gain new knowledge and skills in the field of medicine, which they can then bring back to their homeland to become a doctor with international experience."

The medical placements are part of Cambridge University Help for Ukraine, a developing package of support announced by the University last year.

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