Before this past spring, Alexander Chaika made his living dancing, tumbling and teaching. But once Russia invaded Ukraine, he joined the Ukraine army and was rushed to the front. "The country was in danger," he said through an interpreter. "There was no thought on my part that I wouldn't join and do the right thing by my country."
Last April a Russian shell cost him his right leg all the way up to the hip. "They told me at the hospital that I was close to dying," Chaika told CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.
"Did the doctors tell you they were going to have to amputate your leg?"
"I was already unconscious at this time, so I was not aware that they would amputate my leg," he replied.
In Ukraine, hospitals are inundated with the wounded, both military and civilian, and medical personnel have not yet developed the expertise to handle extreme amputations. "They didn't have the knowledge or the capability of taking care of someone with Oleksandr's level of injury," said Mike Corcoran, of Medical Center Orthotics & Prosthetics, in Silver Spring, Md.
Traveling with his wife, Anna, and Olena Nikolayenko, of the charitable organization Future for Ukraine, Chaika arrived in the U.S. last month to be fitted by Corcoran for a new leg.
Corcoran had fitted wounded American veteran (now Senator) Tammy Duckworth with her prosthetic limbs, and is now volunteering to do the same for amputees from Ukraine. "We have committed to this project half a million dollars of our services, because you have to support these people that are fighting for democracy," he said.
Duckworth met Chaika, and took off her own prosthetics. "This is what happens with amputees; we start taking off our clothes!" Duckworth said. "We always compare, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, you're like me!'"
Duckworth, who lost both legs 18 years ago in Iraq, knows what lies ahead for Chaika: "I had two choices: One was to sit at home and feel sorry for myself; and the other was to do something with the life that I got."
On Chaika's first full day in America, he reported to Corcoran's prosthetic clinic to be fitted for a socket for his new leg, a procedure made more difficult because the amputation is so high up and the cut was not a clean one.
Six days later, he sees his $100,000 leg for the first time. "Wow!" he exclaimed.
"You like?" asked Corcoran.
He hasn't stood on two legs since he was wounded.
Martin asked, "Alex, how does it feel?"
"It is magic," Chaika's translator replied. "He can't imagine that he has this leg."
The next day he starts learning to walk again. "So, always head up," Corcoran instructed.
His physical fitness gives him an advantage starting over. "All the parts are designed to make walking as easy as possible, but it's still a lot of effort," Corcoran said. "It's as high-tech as it comes. A microprocessor knee, a hydraulic hip joint, and it's exactly what our wounded warriors over here would be receiving."
Duckworth noted, "My technology's a little bit older than what he's got. He's got more modern stuff than I do!"
But no matter how state-of-the-art the technology, amputees all live with phantom pain in their missing limbs. Duckworth said, "For me, most of the time, it feels like someone is taking a thick nail and hammering it into the bones of my toes with electricity going through it – zzzit, zzzit, zzzit!"
Chaika said he feels as if someone is smashing his foot tightly in a vise, "and then smashing it with a hammer."
The skin on Chaika's stump is already beginning to break down and will need further surgery. Corcoran said, "This is a process that goes for years. His muscles will atrophy a little, and then at some point you have to make a new socket. The components will last three to five years, but we could do a new socket in a year."
Duckworth has already learned the hard truth of losing a limb in combat. "The wounds from war, both the physical ones, and the mental ones, and the hidden ones, will be with you for the rest of your life," she said.
Chaika said Duckworth was "the bee's knees," for being so inspiring given all she'd been through.
Corcoran said, "Attitude is everything. If you have the desire, we'll give you the tools."
"What do you think of his attitude?" Martin asked.
Alex Chaika and Anna fell in love before the war, married as soon as he came out of intensive care, and plan to have a family in what she shyly calls "the nearest time." Their baby is due in April – one year after Chaika lost his leg. His last name means "seagull" in Ukrainian, and he looks ready to take off into his new life.
Alex arrived back in Ukraine a week ago. Now, there are three more amputees at Mike Corcoran's clinic being fitted for new legs.
For more info:
- Future for Ukraine | Donate
- Ossur - Prosthetics Products
- Ottobock - Prosthetic Solutions
- Medical Center Orthotics & Prosthetics
- Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)
Story produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: Carol Ross.
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