How a fatal diagnosis saved a Ukrainian man from the war

Ukrainian doctor recounts journey to new life in Louisiana

By: - September 29, 2022 9:08 am

Two months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a Ukrainian doctor, Yaroslav Trofymchuk, had so far avoided the bullets and bombs near his home east of Kyiv but soon faced a threat he couldn’t avoid — bladder cancer. In an unusual twist of circumstances, the cancer that was killing him became his ticket to salvation. (Photo credit: Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

Two months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a Ukrainian doctor had so far avoided the fighting and indiscriminate missile strikes near where he lived and worked just east of Kyiv, but he soon faced a new threat he couldn’t avoid — bladder cancer. In an unusual twist of circumstances, the cancer that was killing him became his ticket to salvation.

Tall and slim with blue eyes and a ball cap protecting his bald head from the hot Louisiana sun, Yaroslav Trofymchuk carries himself like one might expect of a European. His bright yellow Wellensteyn shirt almost draws attention away from the serious expression on his face. Smiling for the sake of appearing friendly to strangers is something they don’t do in Ukraine, he said. He forces a grin and says he is still becoming accustomed to New Orleans culture.

The 48-year-old sat down at a small café in Marrero last week and told the Illuminator, in broken English, about the 6,000-mile journey that saved his life and reunited him with his family.

Trofymchuk lived with his wife, Tetiana, and two sons, 13-year-old Arsenii and 9-year-old Tymofii, in Brovary, Ukraine, an eastern suburb of Kyiv. He worked at a hospital in Brovary as a general and pediatric surgeon.

When Russia invaded on Feb. 24, Trofymchuk had to act fast. Russian forces advanced from the east and north out of Belarus, attempting to encircle Kyiv. They preceded their advance with missiles and artillery.

Trofymchuk packed up his vehicle and took his family to a relative’s home in Vinnytsia, a city about 60 miles west of Kyiv. After about a week, he then took his wife and kids to the western border and told them goodbye as they crossed into Slovakia and eventually reached the Czech Republic along with thousands of other Ukrainian women and children.

‘I didn’t know what to do’

At the start of the invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law, which remains in effect. Women and children are allowed to leave the country, but able-bodied men 18 to 60 years old had to stay and could be conscripted into military service.

Unable to leave, Trofymchuk remained in Vinnytsia for a few weeks as Russian forces advanced on his hometown. During that time, however, the Russian offensive began to stall against heavy resistance. A column of Russian tanks was ambushed and suffered heavy losses in a village near Brovary, and Ukrainian troops forced Putin’s military to retreat.

By April, it appeared safe enough for Trofymchuk to return home. Aside from navigating roadways littered with burned out Russian tanks and military vehicles, he encountered no problems on his drive across the country. But once he returned home to Brovary, the situation grew increasingly tenuous.

Ukrainian troops had liberated Brovary, but Russian troops still occupied Skybyn, a village just a few miles away. Trofymchuk could still see heavy fighting and shelling not far from his house. One shell even struck his neighbor’s house, destroying the second floor.

“Then I didn’t know what to do,” Trofymchuk said. “Because you don’t know how long, what it will be tomorrow. One day I woke up and open [a] window and see huge clouds from bombs.”

A missile had struck a civilian facility a few hundred meters from Trofymchuk’s home. He described the facility as a “factory with transformer” and said the strike cut electricity to a large portion of the city. Russian propaganda falsely claimed it was a military facility, he said.

Health issue takes priority

As April turned to May, Trofymchuk’s focus shifted toward his health when he noticed blood in his urine. A visit to a urologist confirmed he had an aggressive form of bladder cancer and could die unless he received a very complicated surgery to remove his entire bladder.

Trofymchuk said the diagnosis put him in a difficult position because the surgery would require months of post-operative care, critical medications and highly specialized surgeons — any of which could become unavailable at any point during the war.

“It’s a difficult story,” he said. “It’s a big surgery; it’s long treatment; it’s a lot of specific medicine. And when your country [is] in war and you don’t know today what will be tomorrow… at every stage of your treatment you may have problem[s] — with medicine, with Russian bombs, everything.”

Trofymchuk got a second opinion from another hospital that proposed a less invasive surgery that would just remove the tumor and attempt to save his bladder.

“It was very tempting for me,” he said, adding that he later understood the second option would have ended badly for him.

Trofymchuk happened to have a cousin, Tetiana Antochshenko, living just outside New Orleans, where a well-connected Ukrainian-American physician, Dr. Oksana Nimkevych, had established a reputation both as a doctor and as an advocate for Ukrainian refugees. His cousin did not know Nimkevych, but she was easy to find because of her local advocacy efforts and volunteer work.

Nimkevych practices internal medicine at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans and volunteers her time with Kryla, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that several Ukrainian-Americans in the Crescent City founded when the war broke out.

Kryla began by shipping medical supplies to Ukraine and eventually started offering direct help to refugees settling in Louisiana. When Nimkevych learned about Trofymchuk’s situation and diagnosis, she said she wanted to get him treatment from the best surgeons she knows.

Nimkevych said she got Trofymchuk’s chart in front of the surgeons at LSU who agreed to take him on as a patient free of charge if he could get to New Orleans.

Trofymchuk’s cousin and her husband, Heewon Park of Marrero, had earlier applied to sponsor him and his family under President Biden’s Uniting for Ukraine program. The application had been approved, and the only thing preventing him from leaving was Ukraine’s martial law conscription order.

Because the conscription order applies to able-bodied men, Trofymchuk’s cancer diagnosis made him medically exempt from military service. He presented his medical chart to the military and was granted approval to cross the border. He reunited with his wife and kids and arrived in the United States on June 19.

“It was difficult to be separated from [my] family,” he said. “Without this problem, cancer, I had no possibility [of leaving].”

The surgery at LSU hospital took close to eight hours, according to Trofymchuk. His surgeon, Dr. Erik Castle, removed the entire bladder and created a new one using a piece of Trofymchuk’s small intestine, a procedure called neobladder reconstruction.

Adjusting to change

Trofymchuk spent two months recovering in the hospital and is now cancer free. His family is still adjusting to life in a foreign country.

Trofymchuk’s medical license doesn’t transfer to the U.S. and he doesn’t yet have a good enough grasp of the English language to try to get licensed here, he said. He is considering trying to get a different job in the medical field while he’s here but doesn’t know how long his stay will be. The Uniting for Ukraine program allows refugees to stay in the U.S. for two years.

It’s unclear how many Ukrainian refugees have settled in Louisiana since the war broke out. Dr. Oksana Nimkevych said she knows of at least 60 in the New Orleans area through her volunteer work with Kryla.

As of Sept. 21, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has received more than 132,000 sponsorship applications from Americans agreeing to support Ukrainian refugees via the Uniting for Ukraine program. Of those, more than 93,000 individuals have been authorized to come to the U.S., and 57,000 have successfully arrived and been processed, Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Justin Long said.

New York, Illinois and California have sponsored the most refugees out of all the states.

Timofii, his 9-year-old, had a difficult time at the public school where they enrolled him. He would cry before school and in the evenings after. The language barrier made him feel lost and isolated, so they transferred him to Visitation of Our Lady Catholic School in Marrero, which Trofymchuk said has more resources and staff to tend to his son’s needs.

Trofymchuk’s older son, Arsenii, has had an easier time adjusting at school, but the entire family is still getting used to things in America and New Orleans.

Trofymchuk said regular American citizens have been generous to Ukrainians in ways he never imagined. One of the first things they noticed when they arrived was the American flag. It’s everywhere, he said, “just because they love their country — no war.”

The friendliness and southern hospitality is also something they had never before experienced. In Ukraine, the most you might get from a stranger is a brief straight-faced nod, he said.

“I was impressed with [how] everyone wave[s] me ‘hello,’ even from [their] car,” Trofymchuk said, laughing. “When I walk around [my] village in Marrero, people wave, ‘How are you doing? Have a good day.’”

The whole experience, beginning with the war earlier this year to his recovery in New Orleans, has changed him. He describes himself as a calmer person and reflects on his life and his family in ways he didn’t before.

“All of it makes you different,” Trofymchuk said. “You begin to think about what will be after you’re gone. You’re crying and shouting, or you’re calm and laugh for your children and for your wife.”

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi.