Soon after Russia attacked Ukraine, Serhii Alkhimov found himself living in an underground station in the city of Kharkiv. There were 2,000 others sheltering there and for two months the 21-year-old medical student was the only “medic” they had.
People he treated and saved included a policeman who suffered massive arterial bleeding after being hit by shrapnel. After that Alkhimov was told to travel to Odesa and not to ask why. When he arrived, he was awarded a medal by President Zelensky.
Now his life has taken yet another extraordinary turn: he is studying at the University of Cambridge.
Alkhimov is one of 21 medical students from Kharkiv — which was attacked on the first day of the conflict and has seen fierce fighting — who will be given essential practical training over the next seven weeks, organised by the university’s School of Clinical Medicine.
All are in their final two years of training. As a result of the war, and before that the Covid-19 pandemic, most of their education since early 2020 has been online. Despite his baptism of fire in Kharkiv, Alkhimov has never actually walked a ward.
“I really just want to say thank you — from my family, from my university and from my country,” he said. “Thank you to Cambridge and to the British people. This is an amazing opportunity to see some of the best medicine in the world.” The knowledge he gains in the coming weeks will help to rebuild his country’s health system.
Cambridge believes it is the first programme of its kind to support Ukrainian medical students in the UK. The costs have been paid by Illumina, a large biotech company, and by an anonymous donor.
Paul Wilkinson, clinical dean at the School of Clinical Medicine, said: “Colleagues have worked incredibly hard to get this programme up and running in a short space of time. This is action-orientated; it’s about packing as much as possible into seven weeks, everything essential that will allow Kharkiv National Medical University to progress students which otherwise, because of the circumstances, it just couldn’t.”
It was important, he said, that Alkhimov and his fellow students returned home. “Ukrainian medical schools don’t want to lose students and doctors who will be essential to rebuilding health services in the country after the conflict,” he said.
The students will be trained at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Royal Papworth Hospital and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust. They will shadow doctors on wards and in clinics, and practise fundamental skills such as taking a patient’s history and physically examining them.
Daria Shliakhova, the students’ mobility co-ordinator at Kharkiv National Medical University, said: “We have such an intense situation in Ukraine. We really need good doctors with good practical skills, who can help our people and save their lives. The clinical placements in Cambridge are very important.”
Many of Ukraine’s hospitals and clinics have been damaged or destroyed.
“Our people are doing everything possible to provide medical services. Doing our job now is quite challenging, still we are doing our best to provide our students with a high-quality education,” she said. “We would like to express our gratitude to Cambridge for supporting Kharkiv National Medical University and all Ukrainians”.
Another of the students, Vira Lavryk, fled Kharkiv after it was attacked, travelling back to her home town in the south of Ukraine before making her way to Portugal for a hospital placement. She said: “Kharkiv was attacked on the first day of the invasion, in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening — hour after hour. My mum told me to come home, which was safe for a while, but then my home town was invaded and occupied by Russia. It left a mark on me that I will never forget.
“It is my ambition to become a surgeon. Cambridge [provides] a higher level of education, so coming here even for a short-term placement is a dream.”
Zaur Badalov — another student who, as a man, needed special permission to leave Ukraine — has been helping to treat injured soldiers and civilians since the war began. “I was staying at a hospital in Kharkiv on the day the invasion happened; I was the first one to notice the windows shaking and woke the others. We were all in shock, and then that morning we had injured people coming into the hospital needing help,” he said.
After a few weeks Badalov, who grew up in Kharkiv, moved with his family to the west of Ukraine, where he continued his studies online while helping to treat injured people arriving at local hospitals from the east. “I learnt a lot,” he said. “Now I have a big opportunity to learn new methods of treatment in Cambridge — medicine in the UK is world class — and take this knowledge and these skills back to Ukraine and pass it on to others.”