Words by Jack Dear
Earlier this year Australian based paramedic Jack embarked on a journey that would take him to the front lines of the war in Ukraine. Having previously worked as a paramedic in Australian Capital Territory, London Ambulance Service, and Cape Town South Africa, Jack as also previously worked as a security/medic in the Australian Embassy in Kabul and as a soldier in the Australian army armoured corp. But in his own words, his deployment to Ukraine was destined to be unlike anything he had experienced prior.
In this short mini-series “Field Reports from Jack Dear in Ukraine,” Jack documents his experience briefly to capture the experience of an Australian paramedic working in Ukraine.
Field Report 2.
Day 11. Baptism on the Kupiansk River.
Kupiansk was probably a sleepy little country town with a close knit community before the war. Now it’s a ghost town, save for a few villages still subsisting off their community farms. Most left when they heard of the Russian advance. Many vulnerable or unlucky people remained behind, living under occupation until just recently.
Todays mission started early and with bad news. Some friends of our new friends were killed over night on the frontline. The young and brave UAF members battle each day and make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Lest we forget.
Our first stop was to see the Kupiansk villages west of the river in the surrounding suburbs. We arrived safe and it wasn’t long before a small crowd emerged, and we were able to distribute the medications. I was asked to perform a house call on an elderly mother who was too frail to meet us. After a short walk, I was invited into their house to meet their family. Margaret (name changed) was charming despite the language barrier and we went through her prescribed medications to see what needed resupply.
Kupiansk saw heavy fighting before the UAF forced a Russian retreat. On their way east, the Russians blew all the bridges. Thankfully, the main bridge’s pedestrian path remains intact and provides a vital thoroughfare for evacuees and wounded soldiers. The fighting can be heard in the background and not all the deceased have been cleared. A sad reality is that so many children are escaping on foot and have to pass these sights. Many ambulances and busses standby, east of the bridge, ready to evacuate those that come across. A volunteer coordinator helps to organise the traffic and asked us to head to the towns hospital and evacuate a bed-bound lady.
We loaded up our patient, plus her daughter, and sped off east to Kharkiv. Credit where credit is due - google translate makes assessing a Ukrainian patient much easier. Dementia, on the other hand, complicates it. It was a somewhat smooth offload in Kharkiv, despite the final destination being at the top of a six floor apartment flat with no lift. I think that’s a square on my ‘Ukrainian paramedic bingo’ game. Then we inhaled some much needed food and found our temporary accommodation in an old boarding school dormitory. A lot of our work is supported by generous people from both Ukrainian and foreigners. The sheer expanse of donated and volunteered resources is astounding, which screams to me how much people want Ukraine to succeed.
PARACREW - https://paracrew.org/
Donations - https://www.gofundme.com/f/paracrew-mobile-health-clinic
Kupyansk after liberation
Day 13. Speechless.
When I chose to come over to Ukraine, I had no expectations and knew it would be a hard slog but, but I could never have prepared myself for seeing this level of human suffering and indiscriminate violence, let alone war crimes.
Two days ago, we evacuated a family of 8 from Kupyansk Hospital, including 5 small children between the ages of 14 months and 4 years. It was a high point of my trip so far, as I felt as though we were doing some real good helping these people.
Overnight we received word that the Russians had targeted the hospital with a missile. An anaesthetist was killed and several nurses injured. The facility is burnt and broke. What little medical equipment they had stored there is now mostly unusable. Kupyansk hospital, the only health facility in the village and an important frontline triage facility, provided a safe shelter for fleeing evacuees. Now the nearest hospital is over an hour drive west, severely impacting the survivability of any critically ill patients. Some notes to consider:
- No military resources were located at the hospital.
- It provided no strategic advantage in destroying.
- It only exacerbated human suffering.
What is this if not a war crime?
While the risk is evident, I feel compelled to continue visiting Kupyansk, now more than ever, as every life transported west is a life saved from possible harm.
Pictures of Kupyansk Hospital
Day 14. Provocation.
The late return to Dnipro was followed by another early rise and I can depressingly count the hours sleep on one hand that night. We’d driven the long distance down by necessity as we needed to return Olena before heading back north. Overnight we learned that Kharkiv had been shelled more than normal and a tense atmosphere would linger with us for the rest of the day.
Mid-morning, after meeting up with the second crew, we heard news of the Kerch Bridge attack. Initially, I didn’t realise the significance. Many bridges had been blown during the conflict. We’d driven past our fair share. However, the Kerch bridge was a different matter. Its position, deep within Crimean territory, held since 2014, links mainland Russian to the occupied peninsula. The bridge, a significant piece of infrastructure, facilitated the free flowing influx of materials to support the Russian offensive in the south. Its destruction was a real victory and undoubtedly a boost to Ukrainian morale. This made the realisation that a Russian response would be a certainty over the next following days most likely to be indiscriminate and unrestrained.
Anyone who’s seen a war flick at the movies knows that soldiers aren’t fond of the press. They come in with an aura of pro-ported journalistic integrity and yet are eager to snap a picture of the dead or suffering for financial gain. As a former soldier, I learned that the press were to be avoided and only the officers begrudgingly spoke with them. Well today I broke that rule. Today’s mission was to shepherd an affiliated NGOs film crew, plus entourage, with us as we went about our work. A quick pit stop allowed us to check their IFAKs and set some ground rules. Questions like ‘do you know how to use a tourniquet?’ And ‘ok, but do you really know how to?’ were asked, before helping them take the plastic shrink wrap off their store bought CATs. Today would be a day of steely patience.
Plans were made. Then abandoned. Then remade. The film crew commented that the returning villages were ruining the motif of a ruinous war zone. At the Kupyansk bridge we set to work and it was clear that the frequency of distant shelling had increased in the last 12 hours. The tense atmosphere persisted.
When the entourage conceived a plan heading east of Kupyansk I stepped in and said my piece, putting a sudden stop to the music of this circus. Simon and I, the only two trained medics, had concerns and pushed back against the half-baked plans. After a compromise, we agreed to take one cameraman and interpreter to a nearby village which we knew had medical needs. The entourage would not be joining us. We crawled east, observing the gradually increasing level of destruction. The fighting west of Kupyansk must have been brutal. Not one building could be found completely intact. Finally we found a gathering of villagers and we went about our busy work.
I must say that having a competent and trust worthy offsider makes all the difference on an ambulance an in a war zone. Ask any paramedic - the person you work with impacts your practice, for better or worse. Simon, my level headed and experience colleague, seemed to hold the same balance of safety concerns with medical priorities. I couldn’t have asked for a better mate to ride with.
After parting ways with the film crew we found a hotel in Kharkiv to crash for the night. A sleep-in was our reward. Not for Simon, who was heading back east at the crack of dawn. Tomorrow was a planned ‘rest’ day for me as I had a university assignment to polish up and submit. Thank God for distance learning.
Donations are welcome- https://www.gofundme.com/f/paracrew-mobile-health-clinic