“I knew there would be people who have suffered captivity and torture, and I was afraid of receiving such a patient,” says Dr. Oleh Berezyuk, Chief of Psychiatric Help at the Saint Pantaleon Hospital in Lviv. But as the war in Ukraine surpasses its 600th day, the doctor’s worst fears have been realized.
Medical professionals like Dr. Berezyuk will continue to confront these gruesome fears-turned-reality each day until the West actively supports the swift removal of Russian invaders from Ukraine. In a time where there is such conflict across the world, we must not lose sight of the ongoing devastation that the Ukrainian people face. Leaders in the West must do more to put an end to this torture and destruction once and for all.
Dr. Berezyuk remembers when the first Ukrainian torture victim came to his hospital room: “Whatever I asked about how the young man was feeling, he always answered ‘Fine,’ ‘All good,’ ‘Normal,’ ‘OK.’” Unnerved by the way this victim was coping with his trauma, but inexperienced dealing with torture victims, he sought out resources to help him treat his patients not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. That’s when he found the Paris-based Primo Levi Centre. The center raises awareness about humanitarian issues, treats victims of torture, and helps train medical professionals like Berezyuk to do the same.
It was this training that helped Dr. Berezyuk understand his patient’s reaction. He was walling off the experience, hiding what happened even from himself. As Berezyuk understood, this psychological suppression can lead to painful symptoms such as sleeplessness, self-isolation, and antisocial behavior.
In this case, the patient could talk about his physical ailments, but when broaching the psychological damage of his Russian captivity, it was always, “All good.” But a few weeks into therapy, a breakthrough occurred.
“You know Oleh, they used to torture us by making me and my comrades stand for 12 hours, and we weren’t allowed to shift our weight from leg to leg,” he said. “If I tried to shift my weight, they would beat me.”
From that point on, the conversation was no longer confined to issues of body pain. With the help of his training, Dr. Berezyuk gained his patient’s trust. Now, the real healing could begin. The patient began talking about the agonies of starvation. During his seven months of captivity, he lost 88 pounds.
“They would give me a small amount of bread,” he told Berezyuk. “It was enough to keep me from dying but hardly enough to keep me living.”
Dr. Berezyuk used the treatments recommended by Primo Levi, along with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and more alternative approaches, such as art therapy, to help his patient recover. Remarkably, the patient’s artwork would often reveal what was going on in his mind days before he could verbalize it, according to Berezyuk.
For example, his first art therapy painting was done in bright red. “The brush strokes were all stabbing motions,” remembers Berezyuk. The art therapist said there were even drops of red paint on the table. “The violence of the painting reflected the violence of the torture the patient endured,” he said.
These paintings lay in stark contrast to the “fine, OK” responses that the doctor had been receiving verbally.
After eight weeks of this multi-method approach, the patient showed some improvement. He painted an image of a canvas divided in half: on one side was the yellow disc of a sun, a tree with green foliage, and a cow lying down at the base of the tree; on the other were those same blood-red stabbing motions.
“I feel like there are two of me: half of me is me from captivity, and the other half is the rest of me,” he said.
The patient’s physical symptoms improved alongside this progress. He began sleeping better, his relationships were improving, and he was no longer self-isolating.
While Dr. Berezyuk has been able to help patients along in their healing, there is still no going back to the people they were before the war began – before they lost loved ones, before they were abducted and tortured. We can’t change the lives that have already been irrevocably altered by this war, but we must do our part to make sure no more innocent civilians have to endure what this patient, and so many others, already have. The West must come together now in support of Ukraine and help put a swift and final end to this dark time in Ukrainian history.
Harvard graduate Mitzi Perdue is a writer, speaker, and author of the award-winning biography of Mark Victor Hansen, the Chicken Soup for the Soul co-author. All royalties for this book will go to supporting humanitarian relief in Ukraine.