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"I got up and walked through the fire"

What professions are associated with courage? The first positions that come to mind are those where people risk their lives: military, rescue workers, border guards. We can also include medical professionals: for example, neurosurgeons or transplant surgeons who bravely undertake operations where their every move can make a difference to someone's life.

We believe that the associative series should be supplemented by Atlanteans, on whose shoulders every person on Earth stands at some point in their lives. These are teachers. Educators and mentors.

In working with children, sensitivity goes hand in hand with courage, tremendous dedication and vigilance. The heroine of this article, a kindergarten teacher with 30 years of experience, embodies all of these qualities. On 14 July 2022, during a massive missile attack on Vinnytsia, they saved her life.

"I knew I had to get up."

A year ago, 50-year-old Iryna Volkova was on holiday and undergoing a check-up at Neuromed, a private neurological clinic 200 metres from the Vinnytsia Officers' House. The hour of the appointment was approaching: the heroine took her phone out of her bag to check the time, and at that moment something hit her in the chest. "Immediately, the fire started, the building started to fall, and dust started to fly. The cars started to "switch on" and explode," she recounts her memories of the first seconds of the explosion.

Iryna reacted quickly: she left the building, intuitively realising that she needed to move further away from the epicentre of the fire, while also remembering to grab her phone bag.

When we remarked on her extraordinary composure, she calmly replied: "I'm just a teacher. ... I don't have the ability to be distracted."

She shared that in emergency or dangerous situations, she first mobilises her strength to solve them or get out, and only when she is safe does she allow herself to release her emotions. After the missile hit and the clinic caught fire, her defence mechanism worked perfectly: "Taka got up from that sofa and left. Through the fire, through the glass." She came to 30 metres from the Neuromed, when it was impossible to stand up on her burnt feet.

"My character is such that I always rely only on myself, I did not wait for help."

While Iryna was saving her life, her shoes were completely burnt and the soles stuck to her feet. "It was very scary. And it hurt!" she says. In addition to her feet, her right hand, ear, neck and face were burned.

Fortunately, her upper body was less affected. It was either due to timely assistance or a small degree of burn, the heroine assumes. Her feet were the most affected: in addition to burns, they were cut by shards of glass and iron.

The capillaries of the feet were also damaged, which complicates the treatment process. The wounds are slow to heal, so Iryna still has to bandage her feet, even on the hottest days of July. Now the children show their teacher how to "stand on their toes" in dance classes, the heroine says with tears and laughter.

Her right forearm was slightly less seriously injured than her legs. The woman underwent a skin transplant, and the next step is cosmetic smoothing. Until then, she wears long sleeves to protect her injured skin from the sun.

The fire experience gave Iryna a fear of confined spaces. She began to avoid trains, buses, even bomb shelters. When the alarm sounds, she goes out into the yard of her private house. "Because I won't go through this fire [a second time], because I already know how painful it is," she reflects.

"Everyone has their own problems: some are visible, others are not."

Iryna was recommended to the "Unburnable" by several people, but she was hesitant about whether the project would treat a civilian.

The project coordinators not only accepted her, but also understood her psychological trauma. "The Neopalimy found a suitable medical centre in Vinnytsia so that she did not have to travel to Zhytomyr or Kyiv, where the project's patients usually receive treatment.

Iryna is satisfied with all aspects of her treatment: from the responsiveness of her doctor, Kateryna from the My Skin Medical Centre ("She is very concerned, always asking, 'Are you in pain?'") to the financial support for her treatment ("I know I wouldn't have bought the medicines myself").

Iryna Volkova went to work 4 months after the tragedy. Her relatives, colleagues and kindergarten children showed her care and understanding of her current condition. She does not pay attention to the opinions of others: "Everyone has to live their own life."

"Everyone said they would come to visit me on 14 July."

On 10 February this year, the heroine celebrated her anniversary, but she plans to organise a real celebration on 14 July, which has now become her second birthday. We have to live today, without putting off life for the future "after the victory", she believes.

Iryna also showed resilience in the first days of Russia's full-scale invasion. "Everyone [in the family] went to work. Even parents took their children to kindergarten that day," Iryna recalls on 24 February 2022. As a family, they bought food and began to make a bomb shelter in the basement of the house. For several months, relatives from all over the region came to the fortress house; during the alarms, neighbours sought shelter in the bomb shelter.

Iryna Volkova is an example of the resilience of civilian Ukrainians, whose quiet fortitude keeps Ukraine afloat. We don't know what tomorrow will bring, so we need to live today to the fullest, she believes.

She hopes to return to full life soon: doctors promise to complete her treatment by October 2023. We wish her a speedy recovery and long life. And strength to raise many generations of young Ukrainians - who will show them how to stand on their toes?

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