Disclaimer: This article is the second part of a four-part series. This series will discuss sensitive matters pertaining to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Click here to read Kenora paramedic leads team to Ukraine - Part 1: Journey to the border.
When Jordan Searle and his team of military friends entered the war-torn country of Ukraine, they did not know at that point, what a large mission their efforts would turn into.
One brave idea from the Kenora Paramedic quickly turned into an aid mission after the group was asked by the Ukrainian government to enter the country and aid the wounded civilians trying to escape the conflict zone.
From the border of Poland, Searle and his team set off driving their donated ambulances through the rugged terrain. The Polish border is usually just shy of 800km away from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, however, in an attempt to block the Russians from attacking from the west, the centralized highway system had been blocked off making the journey for Searle's team a lot more difficult.
Once making it to Lviv, a large westernized city in Ukraine just east of the Polish border, Searle’s team was escorted by a special police force through back roads and small villages. The typical 8-hour drive was altered by impassable roads and active artillery fire from the Russians, who at the time, held air superiority.
“[We experienced] several rocket attacks and lots of indirect fire as the Russians were trying to advance, they were trying to shell all major supply routes and stop military movement,” said Searle.
As the team made it to Kyiv, Searle commented on the eeriness of seeing a westernized city, very similar to the looks of Toronto, face such destruction.
“Watching buildings on fire, the fighter jets dogfighting above us and the rockets coming in all around us, it was a very surreal experience. The only way I can describe it is like a movie or video game, it was very bizarre to see such a modern city burning.”
“There was this very surreal, eerie, air raid siren that was just constantly going off.”
Just as Searle’s team was arriving, many citizens of Kyiv were in the process of evacuating the city. Searle noted the look on their faces, a look he will never forget, “Just seeing the look on the faces of a lot of the general civilians as they watched us enter their city was one of a sort of despair but also a look of hope at the same time, as they knew that someone was coming to help them.”
In the midst of an active war zone, a vibrant city now on fire, Searle said that the thing that stuck out to him the most was the generosity and kindness of the Ukrainian people.
“When we got to the secure area that we were going hold up in overnight, while the bombs were still falling, the first thing this Ukrainian man said to us was ‘you have had a long drive, we should get you something to eat,’ these people just wanted to make sure that we were okay.”
“They ultimately were still trying to feel us out as to whether or not we were good, genuine people, or if we were there with alternative motives. No one really knew anything.”
The locals had every right to be skeptical according to Searle. At the time, there had been multiple incidents of reconnaissance missions from undercover Russian military members leading to skepticism from the Ukrainians towards newcomers.
“The fact is, no one really knew what was going on. The Russian Army was banging at the door just kilometres away, the city was pretty much in turmoil as they were trying to defend it, and it really was all hands on deck in an essence.”
“Anyone aged 18 to 60 was conscripted, martial law was in place, and I didn’t see anyone who was against any of that. Everyone was very patriotic – whether it was filling sandbags or building concrete structures used for defence, it was very interesting to see the amount of work that was going on from just general people.”
With no time to waste, within the first 12 hours of being in Kyiv, Searle’s team was on the ground providing aid to the wounded and teaching able-bodied people the ways of basic combat medicine.
According to Searle, his team was one of the first and only groups working within the active combat zones during the height of the Kyiv conflict, “Nobody else was there... there was us, there was an American surgical group working in the central Kyiv hospitals, and there was one more group northwest of Kyiv that was doing training – trying to give people the skills [to be able to] save someone's life in a traumatic emergency. They were all volunteers.”
“We pushed up the northeast region of the city where the hospital had been destroyed. All of the doctors and medical staff had been redistributed to other facilities or had been injured in the attacks so we were asked to set up some sort of [emergency medical] clinic.”
The team set up a 5-bed trauma clinic and a 10-bed ward which they operated with the procedures they had learned during their time with their respective militaries. The clinic was designed to have a few beds and a small team of medical staff that would be able to treat any life-threatening injuries, injuries that may have been fatal for the patient should they have to wait to seek medical care at a distant facility.
“We used what was a community and dental health clinic, similar to Kenora’s Patterson Medical Centre. It had already been bombed and it had intermittent power, we didn’t have any running water originally but we were able to transfer water and repair some of the plumbing – we did everything to fix what we could.”
“We were able to divert some power and we were able to create this sort of ‘energy bank’ so that we could have some power at night. We did this until the city was able to get the grid back working.”
The clinic was run with the help of multiple locals. Searle said in total, they trained approximately 30 local dentists, dental hygienists, community nurses, and other allied health staff in the ways of war-time medicine.
Searle explained that very quickly, their new triage clinic and all of the surrounding facilities had become completely overrun with wounded and casualties. The remaining government-run medical facilities were trying to evacuate the most serious cases to neighbouring countries such as Poland.
“Every time there was a missile attack or some sort of skirmish, we were looking at a mass casualty situation.”
As is the nature of war, Searle noted that they were not only providing medical aid to soldiers, but that they were treating innocent civilians – men, women, and woefully, children as well.
The clinic was not only helping those with injuries from the war, according to Searle, everyday people who just needed medical attention would come to their clinic, “We would have the elderly come in as they had not had their everyday medications such as cardiac medication for over a week and now they were suffering the effects – it was a lot more of a bigger spread medical thing.”
“I think people forget that it's not all bombs, bullets and looking super cool, it certainly isn’t. A lot of it is primary health care, helping people with their general medical concerns.”
As Searle’s team was mostly comprised of paramedics and allied healthcare team members, they needed a way to get advice from trained doctors. Luckily, through a secure app, the team was able to video chat with doctors from around the world to get on the spot medical advice for emergency situations – comparable to telehealth.
“We did get to deliver one baby while we were there which was nice, a bit of relief to the despair that was going on there. It brought a lot of joy to the medical staff and even to the patients. Trying to deliver a baby while there were bombs going off around you was a very surreal experience,” said Searle, a reminder that life does not stop even in times of mass destruction and violence.
Along with the help of Ukrainians who spoke English, Searle said they had help from the University of Toronto with translating medical textbooks.
“Through good support networks with Ornge and the University of Toronto, we had a lot of the [medical] texts that we would use normally translated into Ukrainian so that the information could be easily trained to the general population.”
“We did a lot of ‘webinars’ so that they could explain to us the more complex anatomy and pharmacology things so that we could all work with each other from there.”
One unexpected, helpful resource when it came to communication was the younger generation of Ukrainians. According to Searle, teenagers and younger adults were very helpful as most of the young people knew basic English. He noted that the language is taught to most school children and that because of the war, they now had the opportunity to practice the language first-hand.
The world watched through social media as the Ukrainian community – both in the country and abroad – rallied together to show the world their beautiful sense of community despite the adverse and unjust conditions they currently face.
“One minute it would be a sort of despair, the next minute we would have a moment of happiness, and then back to reality. We would stand outside and look at all the bombed buildings and just think – that is someone's home. It was pretty horrific.”
“But in terms of everyone coming together, it was just unfounded! The support network that they created for themselves was phenomenal. Whether they were hiding in the bomb shelters in the subway or in the basement of the hospital, the singing, the cheering, the being together as a community, was phenomenal – I had never experienced anything like that before in my life."
Searle made it very clear that the Ukrainian people were not helpless victims, they are strong, courageous and patriotic heroes that stepped up to help their country. He noted multiple times throughout the interview that they (his team) were there to work for the Ukrainian people, not the other way around. The Ukrainians were not helpless and they did not need rescuing.
“They certainly do not need hand-holding, these people are very resilient. Anyone who thinks that Ukraine is some sort of backwards, third-world country would be very wrong.”
As the bombing began to lighten around Kyiv and the Russians started to retreat, Searle’s team was asked to continue on to another area with more conflict.
Searle said he felt confident leaving their first clinic in the hands of the locals that they trained, “We had people trained as crew for the ambulances [at that point], we trained them to drive, how to [use the equipment], they knew how to stop catastrophic bleeding and how to use a defibrillator.”
“We now had about 30 people who were capable of manning an ambulance and responding to a call. The training obviously proved well because a lot of the [patients] they were bringing back were stabilized to the extent that normally, they would have died in the field.”
“We were very proud to see it!”
Watch for part three of this story which will be released tomorrow, May 27, at 5:00 AM (CDT) or you can listen to the full interview with Jordan Searle HERE: