Blackouts pose extra risk to Ukraine’s chronically ill

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For Olena Isayenko, the beeping sound her oxygen machine makes when disconnected from power is far scarier than the screeching of the air raid sirens now commonly heard throughout Kyiv.

She suffers from respiratory failure, meaning she can’t breathe adequately on her own and must receive a constant flow of oxygen through an electrical ventilator just to stay alive.

But the repeated Russian assaults on Ukraine’s power grid have left her gasping for air at times as the capital city continues to experience long blackouts. Other Ukrainians who require a constant power supply to keep vital medical devices running suffer similar fear each time the lights go out.

Green tubes carrying oxygen run across Isayenko’s face as she speaks with CNN at the home she shares with her husband, on the 15th floor of a residential block in Kyiv. Her portable oxygen machine is her lifeline. When the air raid sirens sound during blackouts, putting the elevator out of use, Isayenko, 49, is unable to get down to the block’s bomb shelter – but this worries her less than the lack of power for her ventilator.

“When there is no power, this machine makes a long beep and it reminds me of when I was in intensive care, surrounded by many machines. It sounds like a flatline,” she told CNN.

Kyiv officials try to brief residents about when power cuts are coming but every fresh attack on the country’s energy infrastructure triggers unpredictable new emergency shutdowns. “When you sit and wait for the power to come back any minute and it doesn’t happen, it’s frustrating,” Isayenko said.

Her portable oxygen machine only works for about two hours before the battery is depleted – and it takes more than an hour to charge back up.

During blackouts about a month ago, her general condition worsened, and her family decided it was too risky to stay at home. Instead, they went to the hospital, where the electricity supply is mostly uninterrupted. “When I got to the hospital, I felt like being underwater, when your ears are blocked… I had trouble seeing properly and I thought I was going to faint. And the oxygen saturation in my blood was dropping quickly,” she said.

Olena Isayenko suffers from respiratory failure and can't breathe on her own. She says she lives in fear of power cuts.

Russia’s persistent and pervasive attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid have, at least temporarily, left millions of civilians without electricity, heat, water and other critical services in the freezing winter months. Repeated missile and drone attacks since October, which have damaged or destroyed civilian infrastructure, are part of a strategy by the Kremlin to terrorize Ukrainians and is in violation of the laws of war, according to experts.

When the attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure intensified in October, the non-profit SVOI Foundation anticipated the likely disruption in lifesaving at-home care. The foundation, which was established in 2014 and grew as at-home care requirements skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic, warned patients to be ready. It advised people to purchase generators and told patients to have doctors’ referrals ready for hospital visits in case their at-home devices stopped working, according to Iryna Koshkina, executive director of the SVOI Foundation.

However, the price of generators has roughly doubled since the repeated blackouts began and people living in high-rise blocks are unable to use them in any case.

At SVOI Foundation’s warehouse in Kyiv, Koshkina showed CNN different machines required by patients who are chronically ill and need medical assistance at home. “The situation is really complicated because there are a lot of such people. There are chronic patients, (with) heart failure, chronic lung disease. Then there are acute patients. There is less Covid, but it still exists,” she said.

The foundation knows of patients who have spent hours hooked up to their cars to charge their medical devices through the vehicles’ cigarette lighters, she said. So far, Koshkina has not heard of anyone dying because of lack of electricity. “Or at least we don’t know about them but there were cases of emergency hospitalization,” she added.

The Ukrainian health authorities have not given official comment on the situation of people who need a continuous power supply to operate medical equipment at home.

Lyudmyla Kaminska faces an ongoing battle to keep her 12-year-old grandson Sevastian alive. He has cystic fibrosis, a chronic disorder that leads to mucus build-up in the lungs. Treatment using a nebulizer, a machine that turns liquid medications into a mist he can inhale, is essential up to eight times a day “otherwise his lungs are blocked and he won’t be able to breathe. It is like suffocating underwater,” she told CNN.

Sevastian sits on the floor playing with his toy tanks as Kaminska explains the first time he experienced a power blackout. “He was so scared, he was choking,” she said. They took his nebulizer and hurried around looking for a generator they could use to power it, eventually finding one in shop. Now, when there is a power cut, they go to a school or a shop where they know there is a generator they can use.

Sevastian also has a battery-operated inhaler but he uses it only as a solution of last resort during blackouts, since it lasts only three minutes.

Like many in Ukraine, Kaminska remains defiant despite the risk posed by Russia’s attacks.

“They are doing all this to threaten us, to scare us… but we don’t want to become scared. We are a free nation and we are unbreakable. Even these children can’t be broken, this disease didn’t break them,” she said.

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