The Globe and Mail is spotlighting some of the unsung heroes of the war in Ukraine, who are doing their part amid Russia’s invasion. Other pieces in this series include recognition of the farmers, the photojournalists and the public servants.
Dr. Joanne Liu is an emergency physician at Montreal’s Centre hospitalier universitaire Sainte-Justine, a professor at McGill University’s School of Population and Global Health, and the former international president of Médecins sans frontières (MSF). Starting at the end of March, she participated in a month-long field assignment in Ukraine for MSF.
In the spring, Médecins sans frontières (MSF) launched a medicalized train to transport people wounded in the war in Ukraine. By moving patients from the eastern part of the country to the west, the train helped ensure that hospitals close to the front lines could keep some capacity for new patients.
I vividly remember a doctor named Ivan who worked at the children’s hospital in Zaporizhzhia. (No doctor’s full names are being used in this story, out of concern for their safety.) He adamantly argued that the MSF needed to transfer one of his teenagers, who had sustained open fractures to his four limbs in addition to a fracture to his pelvis, onto the train. The young boy was stable, but he had undergone his surgeries about six days prior, and was under a morphine drip, with his wounds under a vacuum-drainage device. We hesitated, unsure that the train could offer the high-level care of the ICU where he was hospitalized.
Everyone pleaded to evacuate him – his mother, hoping to see her child walk again; the boy, who begged to keep his legs. But what Ivan and others among the ICU staff told us was striking. “He survived fleeing Mariupol, and now he needs to survive his injuries. He is our hope.”
MSF staff had to head back to Dnipro before curfew, to reconvene and make a decision. A doctor named Natalya, one of the Ukrainian critical-care physicians on the MSF team, exchanged e-mails with Ivan over the course of the evening, and eventually concluded that the train could take fewer patients to ensure close monitoring of the boy the next day.
So we met Ivan and the boy, along with his mother, at the Zaporizhzhia train station the next day. The doctor transferred the boy from the ambulance to the train cabin as if he was a precious treasure, positioning him comfortably and making sure the wound-drainage device was working well. Then he turned to us and said: “I am handing him over to you.”
In the care of an ICU nurse accompanying him on the train, the boy was transferred safely to Lviv, where he was later evacuated to Germany for more advanced surgical care.
Just a few days later, on April 8, a missile struck Kramatorsk train station in the morning – a typically bustling time made even busier by the hundreds of people patiently waiting for a train to evacuate. More than 50 people died that day, and hundreds more were injured. Ivan called me, despairing but begging to help, offering to transfer the stable patients from the ICU to welcome newly injured ones from Kramatorsk.
Since the beginning of the conflict, there have been stories like this, and doctors such as Ivan and Natalya have made a real difference in the lives of Ukrainians. They have received trauma patients on a daily basis, mostly from shrapnel injuries, in addition to all the regular emergencies. But despite the danger, and even through a shortage of operating-theatre nurses after a call for the evacuation of women and children from Donetsk Oblast, they keep doing their work – and are even asking to do more. While the invasion of Ukraine remains a haunting moral threat, and an existential one for Ukrainians, they have been our North Stars of humanity and solidarity.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.