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Decorated ‘Hero of Ukraine’ learns to live with bionic arms

Veronika Kucherenko, 25, helps her husband put on his shoes
Veronika Kucherenko, 25, helps her husband put on his shoes - Copyright AFP Sajjad HUSSAIN
Veronika Kucherenko, 25, helps her husband put on his shoes - Copyright AFP Sajjad HUSSAIN
Anna MALPAS with Anatolii Stepanov in Bila Tserkva

Valeriy Kucherenko is a decorated “Hero of Ukraine” but the battle he is currently fighting is learning how to eat and use the toilet alone.

Seriously injured in October, the burly 30-year-old is a double amputee with two prosthetic arms.

More and more Ukrainian soldiers like him are losing limbs in a war that has dragged into a third year, and being forced to adjust to life in a country with few disabled facilities. 

“I have new arms and I need to get used to it. And you have to realise that this is for the rest of your life. This is your whole future,” Kucherenko told AFP, the sleeves of his army uniform rolled up.

The Protez Foundation, a US non-profit, fitted Kucherenko with bionic prosthetic arms after a fundraising campaign.

Made by a Ukrainian startup called Esper, they have chargeable batteries and are operated via muscles in his stumps. 

Kucherenko was visiting Protez Foundation’s Kyiv clinic for adjustments because the prosthetics had become loose.

This is normal due to loss of muscle mass, explained Jim Henrichsen, the US specialist who fitted his arms.

Kucherenko served in the army from 2015 to 2017, and then rejoined when Russia invaded in 2022.

A junior sergeant, he was injured leading troops as they stormed Russian positions in the eastern Lugansk region. 

Shrapnel from a hand grenade peppered his arms, leg and eyes, one of which now only sees light and dark.

Kucherenko was awarded Ukraine’s highest honour: the Hero of Ukraine medal.

President Volodymyr Zelensky told him in hospital: “You are a hero. In Ukraine, no one forgets such heroes.”

– ‘Learning curve’ –

Kucherenko talks openly about his difficulties.

After his new arms were fitted, “the very first thing I wanted to do was go to the toilet independently because this was a big problem for me,” he told AFP.

“That was one of the greatest joys.”

But it is a work in progress said his 25-year-old wife, Veronika.

With prosthetics, “it’s easier, he can eat on his own,” she said.

But the hardest thing is “going to the toilet. He still can’t go by himself”.

The couple have daughters aged seven and two.

Testing his bionic hand, Kucherenko raised a bottle of water to his mouth. It slipped and Veronika caught it. 

At the next attempt, his fingers gripped the bottle so hard it scrunched up.

Veronika grinned. This is why he is so afraid to pee by himself, she said.

“He needs more time, he needs to learn, to train. Then there’ll be a result,” she said.

Prosthetics give amputees “a chance” says a poster at the Protez Foundation, which has a waiting list of 1,600 soldiers.

“It’s a dream,” says one soldier getting a prosthetic arm.

Soldiers “are in good shape, they are strong… They make me look good because they are really sharp,” said Henrichsen.

“Valeriy was just like, ‘Let’s go!'” he said of Kucherenko.

But many may not realise the difficulties ahead, added the specialist.

“I don’t know if they’re necessarily aware of that: the usage of the (prosthetic) hand, how much work it takes to get familiarised with it. Just the learning curve, you know.”

In central Kyiv, Kucherenko’s black and silver hands attracted curious glances.

“Most people who come across someone like me are understanding and supportive… But there are many people who don’t yet understand what it is,” he said.

Until recently he used a wheelchair and found the city “not adapted at all”.

– ‘I can do it’ –

Panoramic windows at the Protez Foundation clinic allow passers-by to see amputees.

This is deliberate, because a wounded soldier “is a hero twice over”, said CEO Yury Aroshidze.

“I’m all for it. Ukrainians and Kyiv residents must see and understand the consequences of war,” said Kucherenko.

As a Hero of Ukraine, Kucherenko should receive a flat, but now lives in a small rented apartment in Bila Tserkva, a city south of Kyiv.

An AFP reporter spent a day with the family.

In the morning, his wife helped him into tracksuit bottoms and strapped on his prosthetic arm.

For everyday tasks, Kucherenko prefers a mechanical prosthetic with hooks to grip a cup of tea or a cigarette.

At breakfast, his elder daughter Valeria poured him milk and fed him with a fork.

Going out later, Kucherenko put on a bionic arm.

He collected Valeria from school and she walked by his side, holding his hook.

Kucherenko plans to return as a military instructor.

“I won’t be able to fight, but I’ll still be able to help the armed forces,” he said.

He recently visited his unit “to show them that I’m here, I’m alive. I can do it.”

He even fired an assault rifle.

“He will go back. He lives for this,” said Veronika.

“But first he needs to learn how to go to the toilet by himself.”

photo-am/jc/gv

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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