The face of hope: Schulich Medicine fellow restores lives in war-torn Ukraine

Dr. Ivanka Nebor (left) helped perform critical surgeries on patients wounded by war. (Photo: Vasyl Salyga)

By Prabhjot Sohal

As Dr. Ivanka Nebor steps into the surgical suite, a serene silence envelops her. With a focused mind and steady hands, she begins to meticulously prepare for the task ahead, fully aware that the upcoming hours will require not only exceptional technical expertise but also unyielding compassion and resilience.

As a surgeon, Nebor is all too familiar with the physical and emotional scars that trauma can leave behind. For her, every surgery is a chance to make a real difference in someone’s life. This is her mission: To rebuild hope in war-torn Ukraine.

Operation Face to Face

Nebor is a Ukrainian ENT surgeon and a clinical fellow in rhinology, working with Dr. Leigh Sowerby and Dr. Brian Rotenberg in the Department of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Between April 22 and April 30, she and a team of nine doctors and eight nurses traveled to Lviv in the western part of Ukraine to perform 30 complex head, neck and facial reconstructive surgeries on patients who were impacted by the war.  

 “The surgeries were not just cosmetic touch-ups to improve appearances; these were sophisticated, life-changing procedures that required extraordinary expertise and accuracy. The surgical teams in Ukraine are unable to do such procedures because of lack of resources and training,” said Nebor, who was born in Kyiv and worked as a surgeon in Ukraine before moving to Canada.  

naboor-300x300.jpgDr. Ivanka Nebor, Clinical Fellow, Department of Otolaryngology at Schulich School of Medicine
(Photo: Vasyl Salyga)

This was the team’s second medical mission to Ukraine. Their first endeavour came in September 2022 when they completed 31 procedures at the Ivano-Frankivsk Regional Clinical Hospital. This time, the team focused on performing restorative and reconstruction surgeries on Ukrainian military personnel who had been wounded in the ongoing conflict with Russia. The surgeries were performed at the Lviv Military Hospital, the largest medical military centre in West Ukraine.

“The mission was challenging and rewarding. Our team successfully restored patients’ ability to eat and speak, but witnessing their resilience in the face of so much adversity in Ukraine has been life-changing for me,” said Nebor.

Preparation for the medical mission started several months ago, as the team scanned numerous patient applications to select the most complex cases to operate on. Most patients identified for the mission had severe facial defects and required specialized surgery to repair damaged facial tissues using tiny blood vessels and tissues from other parts of the body. The range of surgical interventions included rhinoplasty, reconstruction of the lower jaw using leg bone transplants, and more complex cases involving personalized titanium implant installations in the jaw and the region around the eye socket and cheekbone.

“Using leg and arm bones and implants, we performed one of the most complex surgeries that took us over 15 hours to complete,” said Nebor, highlighting that these procedures are not part of the standard surgical training provided in Ukraine. The 3D-printed titanium implants used for jaw construction were donated to the mission by Materialize, a company that provides 3D printing services to various industries.

ukarian-hospital-556x260.jpgDr. Ivanka Nebor (center-right) and team also helped trained local surgeons by broadcasting the surgeries live. (Photo: Vasyl Salyga)

Beyond healing

This medical mission also encompassed an educational component. The team of doctors and nurses trained local surgeons to perform similar surgeries in the future by broadcasting the surgeries live. Approximately 200 Ukrainian doctors, including otolaryngologists, maxillofacial surgeons, ophthalmologists, plastic and general surgeons registered for the broadcast.

“The opportunity to share our knowledge and skills with local surgeons is invaluable. This aspect of the mission not only benefits the patients we treat directly but also empowers local doctors to provide life-changing surgeries for countless others in the future. We learn from each other,” said Nebor, who is also founder and president of INgenius, a first-of-its-kind Ukrainian-language medical media platform that provides access to the latest English-language medical information through translations to the medical community in Ukraine.   

The medical mission – Face to Face – was created in cooperation with the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS), Razom for UkraineINgenius, Healing the Children Northeast, and the Ministry of Health of Ukraine.

Dr. Nebor’s fellowship is funded by donors through the St. Joseph's Health Care Foundation.