Denys Kryvenko is the first person I met just a few days before the April 2023 opening of the Superhumans Center in Lviv, Ukraine. Denys is a twenty-four-year-old Ukrainian war hero from a small village who lost both legs and an arm fighting in Bakhmut. Before the war, he was, like many other twenty-four-year-olds, just playing sports, lifting weights, and chasing girls.
Then the war came. His thoughts turned to his country and to protecting his family. Now Denys is a triple amputee who is being photographed. Nick, the photographer, captured Denys’s aspirations for the future during a photo shoot with a pensive pose.
Denys wants to become a contact psychologist at the Superhumans Center, which is a special position. Military veterans typically don’t like to open up and talk. Since Denys is a veteran himself, it will be easier in group and individual sessions to encourage others to talk about their experience and the heavy fighting they have seen in the Donbas. Denys is motivated to give back and to help others who have been through the same wartime experiences. He will help them heal.
Two days later, on April 14, Superhumans launched its medical center outfitted with a prosthetics lab, elaborate rehabilitation rooms including a swimming pool, and PTSD treatment rooms in an afternoon ceremony that celebrated Denys and a dozen patients. At the ceremony, Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska, Ukrainian minister of health Viktor Liashko, French minister of solidarity and health François Braun, Superhumans co-founder Andrey Stavnitser, CEO Olga Rudnieva, and American philanthropist Howard G. Buffett all spoke, but the focus remained on Denys and the other patients include soldiers and civilians, men and women, young and old.
“We are honored to be a part of this extraordinary effort to bring world-class care to Ukrainians who have suffered life-altering injuries from this war. They are truly superhumans,” said Buffett, Chairman and CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. “Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is a war on civilians, and many men, women, and children will lose their lives, or their limbs, even long after the war ends due to the pervasive presence of landmines. This Center is a step towards giving Ukrainians a chance to rebuild their lives and their country. We must also do everything possible to end this war and the daily devastation it creates for all Ukrainians.”
Buffett is right. As a result of Russia’s invasion, Ukraine is now the most heavily mined country in the world. Reports of civilians being injured or killed by mines have become an almost daily occurrence. Overall, the war has also taken a devastating toll on the civilian population. No one knows the exact figure because it remains classified, but more than 12,000 Ukrainians are believed to currently need prosthetics. This would be a challenge for the world’s wealthiest states. For Ukraine, it is simply beyond the country’s resources.
This is where Superhumans steps in. Through a $16.3 million gift from the Howard Buffett Foundation and others, the Center is taking on some of the more complex cases involving multiple limbs or complex injuries that the state cannot handle or afford. Superhumans provides all services to civilians and soldiers free of charge. The price tag for providing Denys with three prosthetic limbs plus rehabilitation is more than $100,000.
Then there’s the incalculable and ever-present physical and mental anguish. The World Health Organization warns that one in four Ukrainians are currently at risk of a severe mental disorder as a result of the war. Huge numbers of Ukrainians will require professional support for many years to come.
There is another hidden wound from this monstrous war, elusive yet common. Something so fundamental that Ukraine and the world cannot rebuild without it. Millions face a loss of faith in the future. It is vital to rebuild the human spirit by restoring belief in a meaningful life filled with skills and purpose.
“Superhumans is not just the name of a project. I think it is a new social contract encapsulated in a single word. It is a philosophy representing not only of a clinic but a entire country. Superheroes instead of victims. Superpowers instead of disabilities. We want to build not just a clinic, but a super-country for Ukrainians. Because all of them are superhumans,” said First Lady Olena Zelenska.
Zelenska’s words encapsulate the new Center’s vision of a Ukraine where limb difference is only part of a person’s story, but by no means the whole story. Denys doesn’t feel limited. Neither does the very first Superhumans patient, Vitalii Ivashchuk, who is already climbing the tallest mountain in Ukraine with his bionic arm and driving at fast speeds. “My hand is completely restored, and I’m only getting started,” Ivashchuk said.
Michele Anenberg Poma is a team member at the Superhumans Center. She tweets @MAnenbergPoma.