For Olena Isayenko, the whistle her oxygen machine makes when she disconnected from power it is far more terrifying than the screeching of air raid sirens now commonly heard throughout Kyiv.
She suffers from respiratory failure, which means she can’t breathe properly on her own and must receive a constant flow of oxygen via an electric fan to stay alive.
But repeated Russian attacks on Ukraine’s power grid have left it breathless at times as the capital city continues to experience long blackouts. Other Ukrainians who require a constant power supply to keep vital medical devices running suffer a similar fear every time the lights go out.
Green tubes carrying oxygen run across Isayenko’s face as she speaks to CNN at the home she shares with her husband on the 15th floor of a Kyiv residential block. Her portable oxygen machine is her lifeline. When the air-raid sirens go off during blackouts, putting the elevator out of action, Isayenko, 49, is unable to go down to the block’s bomb shelter, but this worries him less than the lack of power to her fan.
“When there is no power, this machine makes a long beep and it reminds me of when I was in intensive care, surrounded by many machines. It sounds like a flat line,” he told CNN.
Kyiv officials try to inform residents when power outages will occur, but each new attack on the country’s energy infrastructure triggers new unpredictable lockdowns. “When you sit and wait for the power to come back on at any time and it doesn’t happen, it’s frustrating,” Isayenko said.
His portable oxygen machine only runs for about two hours before the battery dies, and it takes over an hour to recharge.
During the blackouts about a month ago, his general condition worsened and his family decided it was too risky to stay home. Instead, they went to the hospital, where the electricity supply is almost never interrupted. “When I got to the hospital, I wanted to be underwater, when they cover your ears… I had trouble seeing clearly and I thought I was going to pass out. And the oxygen saturation in my blood was dropping rapidly,” he said.
Persistent and omnipresent Russia attacks on the Ukrainian power grid they have, at least temporarily, left millions of civilians without electricity, heat, water and other critical services in the frigid winter months. Repeated missile and drone attacks since October, which have damaged or destroyed civilian infrastructure, are part of a Kremlin strategy to terrorize Ukrainians and violate the laws of war, experts say.
As attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure intensified in October, the nonprofit SVOI foundation anticipated the likely disruption in lifesaving home care. The foundation, which was established in 2014 and grew as home care requirements skyrocketed during the covid-19 pandemic, warned patients to be prepared. He advised people to buy generators and told patients to have doctors’ referrals ready for hospital visits in case their home devices stopped working, according to Iryna Koshkina, executive director of the SVOI Foundation.
However, the price of generators has roughly doubled since the repeated blackouts began and people who live in high-rise blocks cannot use them in any case.
At the SVOI Foundation warehouse in Kyiv, Koshkina showed CNN different machines required by chronically ill patients who need home healthcare. “The situation is really complicated because there are a lot of people like that. There are chronic patients, (with) heart failure, chronic lung disease. Then there are the acute patients. There is less Covid, but it still exists, ”she said.
The foundation knows of patients who have spent hours plugged into their cars to charge their medical devices through the vehicles’ cigarette lighters, he said. So far, Koshkina has not heard that anyone has died due to lack of electricity. “Or at least we don’t know about them, but there were cases of emergency hospitalization,” she added.
The Ukrainian health authorities have not made official comments on the situation of people who need a continuous supply of power to operate medical equipment at home.
Lyudmyla Kaminska faces a constant battle to keep her 12-year-old grandson Sevastian alive. She has cystic fibrosis, a chronic disorder that leads to mucus buildup in the lungs. Treatment with a nebulizer, a machine that turns liquid medications into a mist that she can inhale, is essential up to eight times a day “otherwise her lungs become blocked and she won’t be able to breathe. It’s like suffocating under water,” she told CNN.
Sevastian sits on the floor playing with his toy tanks while Kaminska explains the first time she experienced a blackout. “I was so scared that he was drowning,” she said. They grabbed their nebulizer and scrambled to find a generator they could use to power it, eventually finding one in the shop. Now, when there’s a power outage, they go to a school or a store where they know there’s a generator they can use.
Sevastian also has a battery-operated inhaler, but he uses it only as a last resort solution during blackouts, as it only lasts for three minutes.
Like many in Ukraine, Kaminska remains defiant despite the risk posed by Russian attacks.
“They are doing all this to threaten us, to scare us… but we don’t want to scare us. We are a free nation and we are unbreakable. Even these kids can’t break, this disease didn’t break them,” she said.