“At first I was unhappy that I survived. It was very difficult to accept my new life,” says Ruslana. She sits down on a park bench, puts her crutches next to her and continues: “But I’ve understood: Even if I’m missing a leg now, I’m alive, I can get up and walk, with crutches, but it works.” Ruslana walks in Odessa every day. Life in her hometown gives her the strength she urgently needs now, she says.
“I really wanted to go to the front”
A year ago, Ruslana Danilkina went to the front as a volunteer to defend Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. At that time she was 18 years old. The decision was not easy for her. In the first months of the war she had hesitated because serving in the army was alien to her. “My biggest fear was that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and how long I would be away from home. But I wanted to go, this is my country and I love it very much. I thought the more that do, the stronger we will be I knew I couldn’t do miracles, but I wanted to do something to help my country,” Ruslana recalled.
Her parents served as role models for her. Ruslana’s mother and stepfather were already deployed in Donbass in 2015 as part of the then Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation, which was directed against the Russian-controlled so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics”. Also in February 2022, when the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began, they went to war as volunteers.
Ruslana joined the Ukrainian army in April. Initially, she was entrusted with processing files in Zaporizhia. But they wanted closer to the front. Due to her young age, her wish was rejected several times, but she prevailed and was eventually employed in the field of communications. Ruslana served until the day that completely changed her life.
“I couldn’t believe I lost a leg”
It was February 10, 2023. Ruslana and her comrades were on a combat mission in the Kherson region. Suddenly, Russian artillery fire started and a shrapnel hit the passenger seat on which the young woman was sitting. “I remember the moment of the explosion well. I ducked, but all I remember is grabbing my knee. I knew immediately what had happened, but I couldn’t believe I lost a leg I asked my comrades what was going on, but they said nothing,” says Ruslana about that day.
It was only by accident that she survived. Paramedics passed her vehicle and administered first aid so that she did not bleed to death. She was taken to another vehicle – and there she saw her severed leg. She closed her eyes in shock. So she drove all the way to the hospital.
Ruslana was operated on in the city of Chornobaivka. The doctors tried to save her leg, but in vain. It had to be amputated above the knee. That same day, Ruslana was taken to Mykolaiv, where she stayed for three days before being transferred to her hometown of Odessa for treatment. In the hospital, the young woman cried for days, but at some point she decided that she wanted to move on.
Since then, her family has been her greatest support. Above all, her brother Wladyslaw and his wife Angelina support Ruslana. Thousands of people around the world also encourage her on social networks every day. On Instagram, Ruslana currently has over 37,000 followers.
“I remember the first operation in Odessa, when people found out about my story,” says the soldier and continues: “When I was taken to the ward afterwards, I just didn’t have time to think about my leg and whether it was hurts. I was always on my phone because a lot of people texted me and they still text me to this day.”
“I stopped taking painkillers”
Her will to live makes Ruslana in the eyes of many a symbol of power and strength. But she didn’t immediately accept the loss of a leg. “I don’t know exactly what day it was that I accepted this reality. At first I thought I was used to it. But when I went outside for walks and came back to the ward, I thought, well, I can It can’t be true! I remember 3 or 4 weeks after the amputation I was outside and my brother took a picture of me. I looked at it and I saw myself without a leg. I think I’m still not full made aware of what happened.”
When asked how she is now, Ruslana says she feels much better now, both physically and mentally. But even two months after the tragedy, they are plagued by phantom pains. “I gave up intramuscular painkillers a long time ago. That was my own wish. Because I wanted to feel the leg as it is. Of course the pain came back, but over time it lessened. My psychologist also explains to me how I do mine to tell the brain that the leg is gone,” she explains. “Because the brain remembers the leg before the injury and continues to send impulses there. That’s how this pain occurs.”
She is currently only taking sedatives to steady her nerves. Until recently, she still had severe panic attacks. Medication and regular psychotherapy help her to overcome this problem step by step.
“I want to skate again”
In total, Ruslana underwent five operations. She is currently in a sanatorium preparing for a prosthetic leg. Her leg is measured every day to find out if the circumference is still decreasing. This is important for the selection and fitting of the prosthesis. Also, Ruslana will soon begin exercises to rebuild muscles that have been atrophied over the past two months.
Thanks to donations, the Ukrainian gets a modern prosthesis made in Germany. Once she learns to live with it, she wants to pursue her new dreams. Among other things, she wants to go ice skating again. “I also dream of a bicycle. Even if I’m missing a leg, it doesn’t mean that I can’t live these dreams.”
Despite her suffering, the young woman wants to motivate other war invalids not to lose faith in life: “I want to show people that everything is possible and that you don’t have to sit around and hide. If something happens to you, it’s scary, it hurts – but life goes on. You have to live it.”
Adaptation from the Ukrainian: Markian Ostapchuk