“They were tears of happiness at first,” says 23-year-old Oksana Balandina of her first dance with her new husband, captured on video by a nurse and now shared across the world.
Six weeks ago, Oksana stood on a mine as she was returning home with her then partner, Viktor Vasyliv, also 23, after venturing out to collect some supplies for elderly neighbours on their street in Lysychansk, an east Ukrainian town on the frontline of the war with Russia.
Oksana, a paediatric nurse, and mother of Diana, 5, and Illia, 7, was, according to medics, fortunate to survive the blast, but she lost both her legs and four fingers on her left hand. Since then she has had moments of utter despair, screaming out that she wants to die, says Viktor, a carpenter, as he crouches by her wheelchair.
Today, however, drinking a takeaway coffee and taking in the sun outside Lviv’s municipal hospital, Oksana – quick to smile – says she feels stronger and grateful, as she dusts some tree blossom off her husband’s cheek.
Oksana Balandina with her husband, Viktor Vasyliv. She is a nurse and a mother of two. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images
In part, she says, that is due to an outpouring of support from strangers around the world touched by that moment two weeks ago in the hospital ward when her husband gently lifted his bride, dressed in white, and held her tight as she buried her face in his shoulder and they swayed to tinny music playing on a laptop.
Oksana posted the video on the social media site TikTok and she has since put up other short pieces of film of her trying to keep fit to music since the incident. They have been viewed many thousands of times, provoking the vital comments of support that Viktor says his wife has so treasured during these hard weeks.
“The dance was a complete surprise,” she says. “We had come back to the hospital from the registry office and Natalia and Olesia [hospital volunteers] had brought a dress and a laptop for music. Natalia said, ‘What kind of wedding is that without a dance?’”
“It was pure joy and happiness,” she adds of her response to Viktor picking her up. “But then the realisation came. It’s not how I wanted my first dance to be.”
There have, of course, been innumerable other difficult moments, not least explaining the injuries to her children, who are staying with their grandfather in the Poltava region to the east.
Oksana and Viktor, who are waiting to be taken for rehabilitation at a specialist hospital somewhere in the European Union, have not been able to see the children for weeks. But the memory of that day, and the precariousness of life in Ukraine today, is itself hard to get over, the couple say. The retelling only emphasises Oksana’s extraordinary strength.
“We were coming back home and there’s a stream at the back of our garden, so we wanted to make a shortcut and took a dirt road,” says Oksana. “We knew this way very well. I was in front and my husband and friend behind, and I saw there was a missile not far from us, I turned towards Viktor, I yelled, ‘Honey, look.’ He looked at me and I just suddenly flew into the air, I heard a loud noise in my ears. I looked at my feet and they weren’t there. Just bones.”
Viktor ran to her. He was breathless, caught in a panic, he says. “In my head I thought it was over for a moment,” he recalls. “Then she started to move; she yelled to me to call the ambulance. But they refused to come close because they were afraid of the mines. They said it needed to be cleared.”
The couple’s friend called Oksana’s stepfather on the phone. “So we carried her with her stepdad and our friend, we carried her to the ambulance. Oksana, despite all the shock she was in, was in charge of everything. She pushed me and I went out of shock, she was the one who told me to call the ambulance. I don’t know when would I have come to my senses if she didn’t tell me. Then she helped the paramedic.”
Oksana explains: “The paramedic was a young inexperienced girl – apparently she had never seen anything like this. So I helped her. I knew my veins better. I asked for oxygen but they didn’t have any. When we came to the hospital, I saw my mom. I saw her and cried ‘Mummy’, and I lost consciousness.”
Oksana does recall brief snippets of the conversations of the medics working to save her life. “When we were on the way to the hospital, the paramedics were saying, ‘If only she was able to make it to the hospital.’ When we came to the hospital, the doctors were saying, ‘If only she was able to make it through the surgery.’ But when the anaesthesia wore off and I came back to my senses, I realised – that’s it. I have nothing. I was panicking, I didn’t want to live, I didn’t want my children to see me like this.”
Oksana was transferred from Lysychansk to the city of Dnipro, 200 miles farther west. “The doctors did an amazing job. They helped me a lot,” Oksana says. “I realised my life was not over. I need to move on and I need to move on for the sake of my children.”
Viktor adds: “She was very depressed – she yelled she didn’t want to live. But in Dnipro there were amazing rehabilitation doctors. They inspired Oksana. And then there was TikTok. She started to post some videos, got a lot of positive comments, and it helped to boost her morale.”
Viktor proposed on the 27 April and they were married the next day.
“I just posted these videos just for myself,” Oksana says, “I didn’t think about becoming popular – I just wanted to document the process of recovery. How the rehabilitation goes … and later, when I will hopefully have prosthetics, I will learn how to use them.”
Viktor adds: “It helps her. Whenever she has a minute, she is trying to read comments to her videos. She smiles, she is happier.”
Oksana says she is determined to rebuild her life and continue her career in medicine – in the field of rehabilitation. “And to show to the others with my own example that you can’t give up, that everything is possible and you should keep living no matter what.”