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Canadian health-care workers offer aid to injured Ukrainians

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Two Canadian health workers now helping emergency medical teams in Ukraine say they are witnessing the horrors and inhumanity of the Russian invasion first-hand.

“So many atrocities,” Ann, a former nurse with the Canadian military who asked that her last name not be used, told CTV News in a Zoom call from Kyiv. “We are seeing all kinds of horrendous things that no normal person should be seeing.”

Ann said she has heard terrible allegations made about the actions of the Russian troops.

“Yesterday we met with a girl who was raped by Russians. Another lady, the Russians basically broke her arm,” Anne said, adding that the woman told them the soldiers simply wanted her cell phone.

Another volunteer said that older Ukrainians are especially vulnerable.

“The elderly people, they’ve suffered a lot,” Elena Bulakhtina a physician from Hamilton, Ontario, told CTV News. “They are crying and saying, ‘Why am I still alive?’”

The two health workers are volunteering with the Pirogue First Volunteer Mobile Hospital (PFVMH), a civilian health group responding to emergencies amid the war in Ukraine. Co-founder Gennadiy Druzenko told CTV News there are 50 volunteers working in 11 unarmoured ambulances treating people in distressed communities. Organizers estimate their group has helped some 5,000 Ukranians with donated supplies since the start of the invasion.

They are now working outside of Kyiv and Zhytomyr. But recently they were dispatched to Buscha, the site of recent brutal attacks by the Russians. While trauma cases have been taken to hospital, the two Canadians said they have been treating shrapnel wounds and injuries from explosives. They are also seeing people coming out of the shadows with untreated diabetes and uncontrolled cancers.

“Medicine here doesn’t follow guidelines,” says Bulakhtina. “It’s all improvised with whatever supplies are available at the moment.”

The two Canadians said they have been giving Ukrainians what supplies they can.

“The teams also hand out medication and other medical supplies, along with toothbrushes, soap. Many have gone without electricity and water for weeks. They’re very happy to see baby wipes,” said Ann.

It was seeing the human suffering from the comfort of their Canadian homes, that both said, that drew them here. Ann left her home in the Gaspe Region of Quebec 10 days ago.

Gennadiy Druzenko, Dr. Elena Bulakhtina, and Ann, who did not provide her last name, appear in this screenshot image. (CTV News)

"I decided on a Sunday morning. I said that’s it. I gotta go. Whatever I can contribute,” she said.

Ann found the name of the PFVMH and emailed Druzenko. Within 30 minutes, Ann said she was invited to join them.

“My kids are grown up and gone. My husband is a very good husband. He’s retired as well. So it was a perfect time,"Ann said.

Her family, she said, was less certain.

“They didn’t think it was a good idea,” she said. “But no matter what I do they support me because they know it all comes from the heart.”

For Bulakhtina, working in Ukraine is even more complex. She was born in Russia and worked as an ICU doctor in Moscow. But she left over a decade ago to work in Hamilton as a Forensic Pathologist and as an assistant professor at McMaster University.

Her family and friends are still in Russia.

“Ironically, my mom does not believe that there is war in (Ukraine),” said Bulakhtina.

“When I call her and say, Mom, would you like to hear the stories … the atrocities …(that) I’m seeing myself? But she does not believe me,“ she said.

Bulakhtina said she’s also lost a few friends who tell her the deaths of Ukrainian women and children are “collateral damage that has to be done.”

“So I can’t be friends with these people anymore,” she said.

Despite her clear Russian heritage, Bulakhtina said everyone she’s met and treated has been kind.

“Nobody has said anything derogatory or bad, though I was prepared ... because emotions are high now.”

Bulakhtina said she is planning to continue volunteering for the next month.

“I’ve never seen so much unity, so much mutual support,” said Bulakhtina.“That’s why I came here. And I’m absolutely certain Ukraine is going to be victorious.”

Ann said that coming to Ukraine made her “feel a little bit better about humanity.”

“We’re not just sitting around and looking at the news and doing nothing," she said.

Even as non-combat medical professionals, working in a war zone can be extremely dangerous. Russian attacks have targeted medical facilities. In some cities, ambulances have been bombed.

The PFVMH says some of its armoured medical units have been shot at, showing CTV News photos of one riddled with bullet holes. Fortunately, Druzenko says, none of his medics were hurt.

Druzenko said he now hopes to order three new Canadian-made armoured ambulances, sitting ready in factory in Mississauga, Ontario. But fundraising is a priority, he said.

“We just beg and pray for armoured ambulances and that just saves lives,” he told CTV News. 

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