As the weeks of war go by in Ukraine, our IBD patient advocate extraordinaire, Elena Skotskova, continues to do all she can to ensure those with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are feeling supported in the face of the unknown. Elena and I have become pen pals of sorts over email. A world away. Our worlds so different. But our understanding of what it’s like to live with IBD very much the same. Here’s Elena’s latest update sent April 13th, 2022. She remains about 30 minutes outside of Kyiv at her mother in law’s home.
Dear Natalie! Now we are engaged in the distribution of humanitarian aid, which came to us from Dr. Falk (a German pharmaceutical company). I want to share with you the information about helping Ukrainian patients with IBD. Ever since we received the medicine from Dr. Falk we did a great job: 1. We sent medicines to 12 hospitals in different cities of Ukraine, where patients with IBD are treated; 2. We have collected more than 400 applications from patients who currently do not have the opportunity to go to their doctor. 3. We have sent more than 200 packages of medicines to patients throughout Ukraine who do not have access to a doctor 4. There are still about 200 parcels left to send, and I think we can do it before the end of the week.
We have received a large number of letters of thanks from patients who have received medications. We tried to ensure that all patients had enough treatment for at least two months. Earlier we received two parcels from our Greek friends, which were sent via Poland. Everything that was in those parcels (medical food, colostomy bags, medicines, etc.) we distributed to patients and hospitals.
On Monday, April 11, we got a big package from Estonia with colostomy bags and stoma care products. We also send colostomy bags to patients who need it.
I have a lot of work now, and I am constantly in touch with patients. We have a lot of requests from patients from different parts of Ukraine. Particular pain is the regions that are occupied by Russia. It is impossible to deliver medicines there, it is impossible to help patients. I hope that someday they will be able to get out through humanitarian corridors, and then they will receive medical assistance.
This is Galina, our volunteer, a doctor who herself sent more than 300 packages of medicines to patients. She lives in Lviv, where humanitarian aid comes from Europe. This charming lady herself takes heavy boxes, sorts them, forms packages, and sends them out to patients. She does this at night 🙂 And during the day she treats people. I am very grateful to her, she is an irreplaceable person in our team.
I also wanted to share information with you we set up on our “Full Life” site that gives people around the world the ability to make donations using credit cards. You can do it from the link https://www.gofulllife.com.ua/donate/ Scroll down and click the: “Help the project” (Допомогти проекту) button. Once there, you will be directed to choose a currency. (USD or EUR, depending on which currency the credit card supports) and write the sum.
The money raised will be used to buy medical nutrition for children with IBD and to buy medicine for IBD patients who have lost their jobs and incomes.
My husband and I are going to go to Kyiv on Saturday (April 16). We need to meet the humanitarian cargo from Lviv. And also, I need to deal with colostomy bags that came from Estonia and send them to patients.
Many people are already returning to Kyiv, I hope that my hairdresser will also come back and cut my hair 🙂 During the war, it is a great happiness for us just to get a haircut or get medicine. We have such small military joys.
For those of us who live in the United States it’s been devastating to watch the news coverage coming out of Ukraine since the war began there February 24th. I was lucky enough to connect with an IBD warrior, mom, and patient advocate named Elena Sotskova in the midst the chaos. She’s been working tirelessly for years to bridge the gap for patients and show all that’s possible in life while living with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. We’ve been emailing back and forth. I pray each day, multiple times, for her safety and check in often to make sure her and her family are unharmed. When I see her name pop up in my email inbox it always comes with a big sigh of relief.
Today’s update is something many of us in the patient community have wondered and worried about—whether those with IBD are having access to their medications and ostomy supplies. Here’s the latest from Elena.
Dear Natalie! Thank you for not forgetting about me, for your care and prayers. We are quiet now. The Russians have retreated from Kyiv and the region and are gathering their forces in the east. A big fight is expected there.
Kyiv and the Kyiv region are still life-threatening. A lot of mines and shells. Our people are working 24/7 to clear the area. We cannot return home to Kyiv yet. 😦 Thank God our house is not destroyed, and someday we will be able to return there. But many people are not lucky, they now have no house, no apartment. Very large destruction in Kyiv region.
A lot of people died, many tortured and raped. Even children. You must have heard or read about our Bucha. This is such a horror that it’s even scary to think about. When I think about how many people have already died because of this war, I cry. I don’t understand why the Lord punishes us, Ukraine, our people like that. What have we done wrong?
A few days ago, my friend’s husband died in the war. He wasn’t even 40 years old! And there are thousands of such people. Most of all we want peace, and we want the Russians to leave our land. Forever and ever.
I try to work hard so as not to think about the horrors of war. I work 15 hours a day, then I just fall down and sleep. So, it’s easier for me. We received a large shipment of drugs from Dr. Falk (a German pharmaceutical company), 2 tons. Happy doctors and patients who unload them. Getting the necessary medicine is happiness for us now. Now I am engaged in distributing medicines to hospitals, and to patients, all over Ukraine.
Each patient who comes to me for medicines is a separate story and a separate pain. Someday I will write about it. During the week I heard hundreds of different stories, and they are all sad. I’m glad I can help them a little.
And I am glad that European friends are actively helping the IBD community. Yesterday Japan wrote to me and offered to help. The whole world is with us!
Stay in touch with you! Hugging you, Elena from Ukraine
Click here to read Part 1: The Humanitarian Disaster in Ukraine and What this Means for Those with IBD
Elena Sotskova is a financier who has lived with ulcerative colitis for 21 years, her friend, Artem, works in IT and has Crohn’s disease. Elena and Artem teamed up with several other IBD patients in 2018 to launch Full Life, an organization created to show those living with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis are not alone in their struggles. They launched a website that features helpful articles for patients, they conduct “patient schools,” and connect with doctors in different regions of the country to offer additional guidance and support for patients.
“The biggest problem in Ukraine, is that we do not have treatment programs for patients with IBD. We do not have insurance to cover medicine, and all patients buy medicines at their own expense. As people across the world living with IBD know, these medications come with a hefty price tag, making it impossible for people to afford proper treatment. This forces many Ukrainian patients to refuse treatment and eventually become incapacitated. This was an issue before the war and even more so now,” explain Elena.
Therefore, one of the main tasks of Full Life is to collaborate with public authorities, such as Ministry of Health, and advocate for rights of patients while working diligently on programs for affordable and accessible treatment.
“We had made such progress for the IBD patient community prior to the war. But I’m afraid now the war has set us back and we have to start all over again.”
The inspiration behind Full Life
Elena tells me she was inspired to create Full Life because after living with ulcerative colitis for more than two decades she’s learned coping skills and how to manage her disease. She thinks about her younger self and the pediatric patients who feel isolated, panicked, and depressed in their journeys.
“My task as a mentor is to lead by example and show that you can live a full, enriched life with this disease. I love communicating with young patients and helping them see all that’s still possible for them to enjoy and achieve.”
Full Life also provides psychological and mentoring assistance to IBD patients in Ukraine.
“Prior to the war and now—the main issue is continuation of treatment. We only have one way to get treatment covered and that is through participating in clinical trials. We have about 11,000 patients with IBD in Ukraine and one third of those patients participate in clinical trials so they can treat their disease. Because of the war, many clinical trials and centers for these programs came to a halt.”
Of all the biologic drugs to manage IBD utilized across the world, the only one available in Ukraine outside of a clinical trial is Entyvio.
How the war impacted Takeda (maker of Entyvio in Ukraine)
“Unfortunately, because of the war, Takeda pharmaceutical’s company was forced to close its warehouse in Kyiv, and patients who took Entyvio are left without treatment. I am in touch with Takeda representatives, and they promised to resolve the issue of access to treatment soon.”
I also reached out to Takeda here in the United States and was told by their media relations department that they are continuing to evaluate the situation closely and are making every effort to protect their colleagues in Ukraine along with continuing to supply patients in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region with their much-needed treatments. I went on to ask how that is possible with so many people fleeing their homes and becoming refugees.
“We know that many patients are displaced, and this is an extremely difficult time for patients, their loved ones, health care providers, and countless others. Access to medications can be an issue. We are working hard as a company to offer medications to those in need through the appropriate providers of care. We also want to make sure that patients have access to direct support. Since the conflict started, we have worked with stakeholders in the country to ensure the supply chain resumes. Those under the Patient Assistant Program for IBD treatment have received their medication in Ukraine. We have also set up a web page for displaced patients with relevant contact information per therapeutic area. We encourage patients and providers in Ukraine to reach us at https://takeda-help.com.ua/#/,” said Megan Ostower, Global External Communications, Takeda.
The challenge of logistics when it comes to drug access and delivery
Most patients from Ukraine rely on mesalamine (Salofalk, Pentasa, and Asacol). Elena has been on mesalamine since she was diagnosed.
“It’s not cheap for me, but it’s the only way I can lead a normal life and keep my illness under control. Before the war, patients had access to mesalamine at local pharmacies or they could order it abroad. Now, most pharmacies in Ukraine are shut down and there’s a huge problem with logistics. It is impossible to deliver drugs from Europe. So now, it’s nearly impossible for us to even get mesalamine.”
“We are constantly in touch with Poland, Estonia, Italy, and Spain. Every country wants to help support Ukrainian patients. But Full Life does not have an account in foreign currency, only in UAH (Ukrainian currency). We never anticipated our country and people would be attacked and that there would be a war.”
I reached out to Bella Haaf is Deputy Director of the EFCCA.
She said, “Please be aware that the situation is very difficult out there. We are trying to support the patients associations as much as possible, but we are unfortunately faced with a lot of red tape. As a patient association, it is not legal for us to purchase IBD medication and ship it to our colleagues, which would be a simple solution. So, in the meantime, we are talking to the ministry levels, NGOs (non governmental associations), physicians, and pharmaceutical representatives. Unfortunately, we have experienced little progress. We had hoped to do a private collection of IBD medicines, but again this is legally not possible.”
Elena’s advice for IBD patients in Ukraine and refugees
Elena hopes all Ukrainian IBD patients fleeing the country bring their medical documents (even just a photo on your phone to prove diagnosis).
“To do this, patients need to state their diagnosis when they cross the border and advise medical professionals they need continuous treatment. If you couldn’t bring your medical documents, try and remember what doctors in Ukraine diagnosed you and prescribe your medicine. If there are problems with getting treatment in EU countries, contact Full Life and we will work to solve your issue through local patient agencies.”
For now, each day of destruction and heartbreak leaves the people of Ukraine feeling helpless, especially those with a chronic illness that requires daily management and care.
“I think now neither I nor other Ukrainian patients will be able to write a happy story. We all have the worst period of our lives right now, as our country is in war. We are now very upset and depressed. But we are glad that our American friends remember us and are worried.”
The pharmacy crisis
“What will happen next, I do not know. There are no pharmacies in the village where we live and work. The logistics from Kyiv are very difficult. No delivery companies work.” Today (March 31) Elena’s husband is headed to Kyiv to try and get her medication, which of course comes with many dangers and risks. I will share an update once one is available.
Elena tells me only about 30 percent of pharmacies remain open in Kyiv right now and that there is a “catastrophic shortage of pharmacists left” since so many fled the country.
“Now in those pharmacies that work, there are huge queues, and almost no drugs, because they cannot deliver for various reasons. If I stop taking my drug, I’m afraid it will soon be exacerbated disease. You know how stress affects our disease. This war has caused terrible stress and so many patients have it worse. There are areas in Ukraine where there is no medicine, no food, no water. For example, in Mariupol, we don’t even know if people are alive there. So many have died each day from shelling hunger, and disease. Who could have imagined this in our time?”
Using plastic bags as ostomy bags
Sadly, Elena says many of the patients she’s connected with through Full Life are no longer in touch.
“I don’t know if they are alive. For ostomy patients, they are left without their necessary means for hygiene. Some of my peers have been gluing small plastic bags around their stomas. I am currently talking with patients and taking note of all their needs. There is a doctor in Lviv who treats patients with IBD and that is where we are having all IBD humanitarian aid sent. The Patients’ Association in Poland is actively helping coordinate the delivery of medicines and hygiene products from Europe to Ukraine as well.”
Elena says she is constantly in contact with European Associations, and they all promise to help.
“I try to be in touch with our patients, I try to support them somehow, but it is difficult. The prospects are unclear, it is unclear when this war will end.”
Regardless, Elena works tirelessly to be a pillar of support for others, even as she worries about her own wellbeing. I feel fortunate to have connected with Elena in recent weeks. Her updates and perspective are a reminder of how far IBD treatment still needs to be come in other parts of the world and of the extreme challenges so many people with chronic health conditions are facing in this war.
“As for our progress in receiving humanitarian aid, we are currently waiting on a small package from Greece. The first of two. The second parcel should arrive later. Dr Falk (a pharma company) also donated Budenofalk and Salofalk to us. And on Friday (4/1), a German non-governmental organization plans to send more of these medicines to Ukraine.Our Ministry of Health sent a letter to the Polish Ministry of Health with a list of drugs that Ukrainian patients with IBD need. We are waiting for a reaction from the Polish side.”
The Full Life organization is a member of the Charitable Society “Patients of Ukraine” and they collect help for all patients and can be of support. Click here to see Facebook posts.
Stay tuned to Lights, Camera, Crohn’s for continued updates and keep Ukraine and its incredible people close in thought and prayer. Thank you to Elena for her openness and willingness to email me back and forth as she lives through these extreme challenges. We’ve built a friendship from afar and I’m grateful she’s sharing the IBD patient experience through war so the rest of us can have this unique understanding and perspective.
As she fears for her life each day and every night in her homeland of Ukraine, ElenaSotskova thinks back to when her body started going to war against ulcerative colitis. She was 21 years old. Now, as a 47-year-old IBD mom, she shares firsthand experience of what it’s like to live in absolute chaos and devastation while trying to manage a chronic illness like IBD. Every morning Elena and her family wake up at 6 a.m. to the sound of explosions and gunfire. Oftentimes the internet and electricity go in and out, with repair workers constantly having to restore power.
Before we get into the utter heartbreak and unthinkable sadness, here’s some background. This isn’t the first time Elena has had to run from her home to try and reach safety. Shortly after her ulcerative colitis diagnosis, she fled with her 3-month-old daughter to Kyiv from Crimea, to avoid an abusive husband. At the time, she had the equivalent of 25 U.S. dollars in her pocket. Prior to becoming a mom, Elena worked for one of the largest banks in Ukraine, so she was confident she’d be able to land back on her feet in no time and support herself and her daughter. The stress of the divorce and being forced to start anew exacerbated her IBD.
“My condition was worsened by constant diarrhea, bleeding, low hemoglobin, and as a result, constant fatigue. I tried not to pay attention to it as I needed to work and make money for myself and the baby. My ulcerative colitis limited what I could do and where I could go. I used to be unable to go for walks unless I know where the restrooms were. I always had spare clothes with me and wet wipes, in case I did not make it in time.”
Since then, Elena has managed her ulcerative colitis with Mesalamine, in large doses (6-8 grams per day).
“In Ukraine at that time there was no biological therapy, and even clinical studies of such therapy did not take place. All that was available to patients were hormones and mesalamine. In addition, in Ukraine there is no compulsory insurance medicine (until now), there are no state programs for the treatment of patients with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, so I and other patients must buy drugs with our own money. And they are, as you know, not cheap. Compared to the level of income in Ukraine, it is expensive.”
How love found its way
Elena says she was working to buy her medicine. It felt like a vicious, never-ending cycle. But Elena’s luck in the love department took an amazing turn.
“I was lucky, I met a wonderful man, named Leonid who has a son. Leonid later became my second husband. I immediately told him about my illness. He accepted me, my IBD, and my child. He wouldn’t turn away from me or be ashamed when I had an accident at an event or in a public place. He helped me and supported me. And as a result, I stopped being nervous about my ulcerative colitis. I stopped worrying, and after I became calmer, the disease slowly began to subside.”
Leonid also started to take care of all the costs associated with her IBD treatments. Elena credits him for reviving her medically and emotionally, allowing her to reach remission after chasing after it for years. She was able to travel comfortably away from home and see the world through a different lens.
Prior to the war with Russia, Elena had big plans for herself. She aspired to begin her MBA and travel to English-speaking countries.
When the explosions hit
“All plans collapsed at 4 a.m. on February 24, 2022. We woke up to the explosions, saw the message “The Russians are bombing Kyiv, the war has begun.” That was more than a month ago, but it seems like we’ve been living in this nightmare for ages.”
Elena’s daughter, Alina, had recently arrived in Poland to study, but she happened to be home in Ukraine with family when the war started. Prior to this happening her travel plans were to fly back on February 27th. Of course, that all changed.
“She was supposed to fly back to Warsaw on Sunday, but war broke out on Thursday. Immediately, air traffic over Ukraine stopped. And hell began. Kyiv was bombed from the very beginning, we sat in the bathroom during the air raid, went down to the basement or went to the shelter. We did not turn on the lights in the apartment and taped the windows with duct tape so that they would not be knocked out by the explosions. We walked the dog for 5-10 minutes, near the house, so that if the shelling started, we could quickly hide. We live in Kyiv on the 7th floor, and most of all I was afraid that a bomb would hit our house, and we would either be overwhelmed or burned in a fire.”
Elena says for days on end she sat with her husband and daughter in their apartment. Alina would constantly cry. They learned that evacuation trains were leaving Kyiv for western Ukraine. At this point, they decided to send Alina back to Poland.
Nights spent at the railway station
“The most terrible were the three days that Alina and I spent in the basement of the railway station in Kyiv. There is a curfew, you cannot go outside in the evening, in addition, it was dangerous to go outside, because they are constantly shelling. My daughter and I got to the train station and decided to wait here until she could take the train to safety. My husband and son stayed home with the dog.”
The trains to leave Ukraine were like something out of a horror movie. Instead of a train car fitting the usual four people, they were packed with 20-plus people. People were ready to stand for an entire day just to leave Kyiv.
“Alina could not get on the train that was going to Warsaw, and we stayed overnight at the station. At night, the air alarm did not cease, explosions were heard, we went to the shelter (basement) of the station, which for three days turned into a home for us. We tried to sleep on the floor, it was warm, but the main thing was that it was safe. Finally, on the second day, we managed to put Alina on the train to Lviv. She left, and I was standing on the platform crying and praying that the train on the way would not be shelled, and my daughter would reach Lviv intact.”
Elena had to stay alone at the train station for an additional night because of the curfew in Kyiv. She was afraid her IBD would start acting up from the overwhelming stress and worry and terrified she was going to be killed.
“My gut understood me, it “behaved quietly”, and did not give me cause for concern. During the 21 years of illness, I learned to negotiate with him. On the fourth day, when the curfew was lifted, I was finally able to return home, wash myself and clean myself up. And my daughter had already reached Poland and was safe. We thought that somehow, we could adapt to this situation. We had food, water, gas, electricity, and Internet. We thought that we could somehow live in Kyiv. But this turned out to be unrealistic, as soon as dusk came, the city was pierced by an air alarm, it turned on several times during the night.”
Deciding to leave Kyiv
Bombing began each morning between 3 and 4. Elena and her family stayed in their clothes and didn’t sleep. She would take her dog and lock herself in the bathroom while her husband and son were standing in the hallway where there were no windows.
“Then a cruise missile hit a television tower, close to our house. It was afternoon, her son had just gone out to the store for bread, and there was an explosion, a crash, a fire. People who were nearby were killed. My husband said that we needed to leave Kyiv, it was extremely dangerous.”
So that’s what they did. They left for Elena’s mother-in-law’s house who lives in a village outside of Kyiv. There are no military or infrastructure facilities there, so they are hopeful it will not be bombed. As you are reading this, Elena is still there.
“In the village it is calmer, the battles are 30-40 kilometers (20-30 miles) away, we constantly hear artillery shots, gunfire, explosions, and flying missiles. But there is no air raid alarm, which was so exhausting in Kyiv. It’s still impossible to sleep normally. We are afraid that we will be occupied, and we are not where there are active battles.”
Running out of IBD medicine
But, Elena now faces another major issue. She will run out of her IBD medication this week and there is no way to buy it or receive it. Since the war started, she’s heard from countless other patients in the same bind. Doctors have fled, there’s no place to safely receive treatment, and for those who are now refugees or without jobs, they struggle to afford their medications. Elena knew she had to do something.
“I began to write to the European Crohn’s and Colitis Association, manufacturers of drugs, everyone who I could, to find out how to help our patients. Poland and Estonia immediately responded. They understand if Ukraine does not resist, the war will go on, to Poland, and the Baltic countries may also suffer. Now we are in constant contact with our European colleagues and are waiting for humanitarian assistance from them. Packages from Greece are supposed to arrive any day now.”
While Elena’s ulcerative colitis is under control now, she’s been forced to reduce her daily medication dose by half to try and keep medication in her body for as long as she can. She’s starting to feel that reminiscent pain we all know too well when our intestines are making themselves known. The pain, bloating, and diarrhea have been more consistent for her, but she doesn’t feel she’s flaring yet.
“I’m very scared that if I go into a flare, there will be no one and no place to treat me. I am afraid that this war will drag on for a long time, and then it is impossible to predict the condition of either mine or our other Ukrainian patients.”
Her friend was able to find her mesalamine in Kyiv. She bought the medication, but it’s been a week now and the package has not arrived to Elena’s new address. Tomorrow (March 31), Elena’s husband will venture back to Kyiv to try and get Elena the medicine she relies on.
She tells me she no longer cries or has emotions and that every day feels like déjà vu. Sometimes she feels like a robot in an out of body experience. Elena says the Ukrainian people are steadfast, strong, and remain hopeful they will be victorious in the end.
Tomorrow on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s you’ll learn about Elena’s inspiring patient advocacy prior to the Russian invasion, how she co-founded an IBD organization to support the patient community, and how she’s working day and night right now to help the approximate 11,000 Ukrainians who live with IBD and are struggling to manage a disease while living through a war.