When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in late February, Dr. David Brown couldn’t stop thinking about the kids.
Brown, a plastic surgeon at Michigan Medicine, had been to Ukraine almost every year for the last seven with a team of doctors, nurses and medical residents from across the U.S. to operate on children who’d been severely burned and needed plastic and reconstructive surgery.
Some of the children Brown treated on his trips to Ukraine were burned in prior attacks by Russian forces; others were injured in everyday accidents.
Among them were kids whose faces had been scarred so badly, they had difficulty closing their mouths, their eyelids or moving their heads. They were children whose scars on their feet and legs made it hard to walk.
“Your skin stretches as you grow, but burn scars don’t,” said Brown, who also is a professor of plastic surgery at the University of Michigan Medical School. “So these children need operations sometimes yearly or every two or three years.”
One of the hospitals where he worked was in Dnipro, which is in eastern-central Ukraine, an area heavily bombed and shelled in the Russian invasion.
His heart sunk when he saw a photo of medical workers trying to care for newborn babies as missiles ripped through the city.
“The nurses from the intensive care unit were with the premature babies and moved them to the basement,” he said. “They were sitting on little cots on the floor by the supply shelves with ventilator bags, just hand ventilating the patients because they couldn’t take the ventilators down there when they were getting bombed.
“Each of us who know these people personally are devastated by the news.”
Brown scrambled to figure out how he could help ease the suffering in the war-torn country.
He teamed up with Dr. Gennadiy Fuzaylov, a pediatric anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Shriners Children’s Boston hospital, who’d organized the medical relief trips to Ukraine, and “we specifically asked, ‘What can we get you? What kind of supplies do you need?’
“Our friends and colleagues there have said … ‘What we really need are bandages and sutures and syringes and that kind of stuff.’
“We were lucky enough to come across a few really good donors in the Detroit area and in Boston and got them flown over.”
Another 22 pallets went out from the Boston area, said Fuzaylov, who founded Doctors Collaborating to Help Children, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving pediatric burn care in Ukraine.
The supplies were flown into Poland and then delivered on trucks to medical workers in the Ukrainian cities of Lviv, Kyiv and Dnipro, Brown said.
Fuzaylov, whose parents were refugees to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union, speaks Ukrainian and Russian. He has been on medical missions around the world, but began to focus mostly on helping children in Ukraine about 12 years ago.
“When you stay in one area, your impact is high,” he said.
He and the others on the team travel to the country each year not only perform surgeries, but to teach Ukrainian medical workers how they do their work, to offer continuing telemedicine visits once they return to the U.S., and when there’s a seriously burned child who can’t wait for the next relief trip to Ukraine, Fuzaylov helps arrange to bring them to the U.S. for treatment.
Just last week, Fuzaylov helped to bring a boy injured in a blast in Mariupol, Ukraine, to a hospital in Augusta, Georgia, where he’s now getting the care he needs.
“It was a huge collaboration, a moving target,” said Fuzaylov of the effort. “Between the air ambulance and the Department of Homeland Security and the doctors in Poland and the Ukrainian administration, it took me 10 days to do the first transport.
“I hope the next transport will be smoother.”
Brown and Fuzaylov are working now to collect enough supplies to send another shipment to Ukraine.
“I can’t fly a jet over there and clear the airspace,” Brown said, “but I do know who needs bandages and syringes and how to ask people for them here in this country. … And so that’s what we’re doing. If we can spread that word a little bit and let people know that something’s being done that they can feel good about, maybe be they’d be willing to pitch in and help out.”
Monetary donations can be made directly to Doctors Collaborating to Help Children through its website, http://dctohc.org/, or via check to Fuzaylov at 262 Monsignor O’Brien Hwy., Unit 505, Cambridge, MA 02141.
The wish list for the next shipment includes surgical instruments, gauze, bandages, water filters, tourniquets, suture materials, electrocardiogram machines, surgical gowns, sterile drapes, and more, said George Samson, president & CEO of World Medical Relief.
“We have to save the people over there and protect them, especially the children,” he said.
The World Health Organization reported April 11 that it has verified 91 attacks on Ukrainian health care facilities since the war started, causing 73 deaths and 46 injuries.
“Children and adults alike are being burned, killed, maimed,” Brown said. “A burn affects you for your entire life. You’re never without it, the functional disabilities, and the way a burn just prevents you from … fitting in with society is horrendous.
“Oftentimes when people want to try to help, you have no idea how. But we have all the infrastructure already in place. We just need more supplies to send.”
He said he’s eager to go back to Ukraine to see the kids he’s treated in the past and to help others who’ve been newly injured and are in need of surgery. But Brown acknowledged it might be a while before that can happen safely.
“What we want to do is help and do good things, but not put anybody in serious jeopardy,” he said. “We have to really think through all that.”