Married Couple Reflects on Recent Volunteer Service in Ukraine

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Two health care workers share their experiences providing medical services in a war zone in Ukraine

By Melissa Babb and Mitch Babb

Melissa Babb is a pediatric nurse practitioner for Duke Urgent Care.

I see a billowing plume of smoke outside the third-story window as the sun rises on my fifth consecutive night shift in the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit of a Lviv, Ukraine, hospital. A Russian bomb just exploded 6 kilometers from where I stood. Air raid sirens blared. I only had a minute to internalize my shock and disbelief. There are four children in the ICU, three on a single oxygen tank and one on life support. How do I keep these critically ill children safe? I’m a nurse, not a soldier. I’m trained to care for sick children, not war! Is there a bomb shelter in the hospital? Will there be more bombs? How far away from the window is safe from glass blast? The Ukrainian nurse I’m working with tells me not to worry – the bomb is far away. This is their world, their everyday life. It’s normal to be bombed and have air raid sirens go off day and night. A missile is no big deal unless it hits your home.

One week ago, I was safe, sitting on my comfortable couch, scrolling social media. I was mesmerized by a post from Novick Cardiac Alliance pleading for nurses willing to travel into a war zone in three days to perform cardiac surgeries on Ukrainian children. My husband and I had been searching for opportunities to help Ukraine. I had the skill set for this mission. Within five minutes of seeing the post, I had complete support from my husband and my job. I was on the team. Russia had spared Lviv from war – it was a place of refuge for fleeing Ukrainians. I felt a little fearful, but mostly excited to serve.

While I was flying over the Atlantic, Russia bombed a military base on the outskirts of Lviv. Landing in Poland, I realized this was war, and no place is safe. One nurse traveling from Los Angeles landed and decided to board a plane back home. After praying and speaking with my husband, I felt a wave of peace. I boarded a bus with 12 international team members and crossed Poland’s border into Ukraine. We drove past hundreds of Ukrainian refugees crossing the border at 2 a.m. with small children and only what they could carry.

One of the nurses on our team was Serbian. Ukrainians often consider Serbians as enemies. After a heated altercation at the border crossing, she was thankfully allowed into Ukraine. Our interpreter was Belarusian, also a Ukrainian enemy, and thus not allowed into Ukraine and had to remain in Poland. I communicated with families, patients and local providers using Google Translate. The photo function on the app helped me navigate medications and dosages, IV pumps and monitors that were all in Russian.

Due to safety concerns, we lived in the hospital. Air raid sirens were constantly alarming, making sleep difficult and mentally paralyzing, wondering if there was an inbound missile. Monitors and IV pumps would spontaneously shut off, stopping lifesaving medications. I functioned as the pharmacist, calculating dosages and mixing medicine to appropriate concentrations and doses. I worked with an international team of health care providers with different backgrounds, perspectives and methods of providing patient care.

Our third case, a 17-day-old, came back from the operating room very sick. We called the Ukrainian interventional cardiologist at 2 a.m., requesting he come to the hospital immediately to image the baby’s heart so we could figure out why she was so ill. He was recently displaced from the Kharkiv area, where he awoke one morning to see a Russian missile shooting through the sky from his back window. He could not travel until 8 a.m. due to a government-mandated curfew. If he were caught traveling during curfew, he said he would be sent to the border to fight for Ukraine. We miraculously kept that baby alive until he could assist the next morning. She is now home with her mother. – Melissa Babb

While Mel and I watched the developments in Ukraine, we both felt a calling. I reached out to several organizations in March 2022, seeking opportunities to serve. Shortly after Mel’s tour of duty, I was asked by Baptists on Mission if I would travel to Hungary to work with refugees. Without question, and with full support of Mel, I said yes.

Mitch Babb is the chief operating officer at Duke Regional Hospital.

Within two weeks, I was on a plane, with little knowledge of our specific mission or what I was going to face. My long trip included a missed flight and a 12-hour layover in Paris before I arrived in Budapest at 12:30 a.m., and then drove four additional hours to a location about 100 kilometers from the Hungarian/Ukrainian border. I took a brief nap before gathering with a diverse group of colleagues, ready to serve.

I was one of two nurses. The needs on the ground were rapidly changing, with a distinct demand for medical personnel to travel into Ukraine and assess medical needs for internally displaced people (IDP). We left the next morning to travel across the border. My nurse colleague and her daughter, who were originally from Ukraine and spoke the language, appeared nervous. They had Russian visas in their passports. Sources inside Ukraine said it was very risky to cross and that we could all be detained. We decided, after thoughtful consideration and prayer, that the need exceeded the risk, and we developed a plan to split the group at the border. Our colleagues with Russian visas would walk across, while the remaining group would travel by vehicle. We could not acknowledge one another – a tactic to prevent all of us from being detained if something happened. Thankfully, all team members were able to cross.

We quickly went to work. We spent our first weekend meeting locals at shelters, partnering and building relationships with members of Hungarian Baptist Aid, who had teams and connections on the ground. There were so many tragic and disturbing stories. It was palpable how psychosocially impacted every IDP in our care were by recent events. But it was just as common to see their strength and spirit in making the best of what they had.

In one room, we encountered a lively group of Ukrainian ladies who built their own parlor and were playing music while doing one another’s hair and makeup. We’d leave and find a concerned mother requesting a health assessment for her 12-year-old son; he was withdrawn and had not spoken in over a week. I built a rapport with him, and he finally spoke. I learned this young man and his mother were leaving their eastern Ukraine home via train when a Russian missile hit the station. He couldn’t sleep because all he could see were the injured and murdered. He questioned why he and his mother survived and could not think about anything else. I still think of this young man to this day. While I can’t change what happened, I can provide him, and others like him, with much-needed support. This is exactly why I went.

After my return, I continued keeping up with subsequent teams who carried out our medical mission within Ukraine during the spring and summer. While standing to board my flight home from vacation in July, I received a call from one of the coordinators I served with, asking if I’d be willing to return. I looked at Mel and quickly said yes. A few days prior to departing, however, the U.S. state department issued a warning asking all Americans to leave Ukraine due to heightened risk. I was disappointed, but I knew returning to Ukraine was in God’s plan for me. I let the organization know I was willing to go regardless of risk concerns. I was notified a few days later that several team members declined to go, including our provider and pharmacist. Still, Hungarian Baptist Aid’s special international rescue team, Rescue 24, was willing to partner with whomever still wanted to go. I was asked to be the team leader of this small group, and boarded a plane returning to Ukraine two days later. We provided medical care to more than 200 IDPs – making lifelong friends in the process – during the 10-day mission. – Mitch Babb

As we move into winter, political and military tactics continue to inflict destruction on Ukrainian life and infrastructure. Our hearts and minds are with those in Ukraine. These trips forever changed our lives. It was some of the hardest physical and mental work we have endured, yet we are both prepared and ready to return, which we hope to do in the new year.

This is just a glimpse of our journey and how we chose to make a difference in the lives of our fellow humans, but there are many ways to serve and give back. What will yours be?

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