As she fears for her life each day and every night in her homeland of Ukraine, Elena Sotskova 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.