US airlift for Kiev victims postponed by threat of war

By TORSTEN OVE | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Published: March 2, 2014

An American medical team had been set to fly to Kiev last week as part of a triage effort to evaluate those wounded in street clashes and bring some of them to the U.S., but the flight was postponed Friday as potential civil war looms in Ukraine.

The goal had been to determine which patients can be flown to European and American burn centers, possibly including the two in Pittsburgh.

But developments in Crimea on Friday grounded the effort, at least for the time being.

"In plain English, war with Russia is a real possibility now, and the risks of flying an aircraft are too high," said Tymofiy Mylovanov, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh and a Kiev native involved in the relief effort.

"The situation is very liquid and changes every hour in Ukraine," said Zenia Chernyk, a Philadelphia-area kidney specialist who, as chair of the Ukrainian Federation of America, has been trying to arrange medical relief in Kiev with the help of doctors there. "We are continuing with support, transferring patients to the closest countries and will start purchasing equipment [for their] trauma hospitals. We also still need a commitment from [U.S.] hospitals for patients that are less critical and can travel by commercial flights to be treated in the U.S."

The American embassy in Kiev last week sent out a request on its Facebook page for doctors with ties to American hospitals, particularly burn centers, to urge them to accept patients.

"If something can be figured out with a burn unit we could help with the consular application process for victims to travel to the United States," the embassy said.

Physicians in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Washington and other cities, many with sizeable Ukrainian populations, have since responded that their facilities are willing to help. The number of severe burn patients is hard to pin down; the best estimate is about 40, but there could be many more.

Several hospitals have agreed to take one patient each at no cost, said Dr. Chernyk.

"We're getting offers from hospitals all over the country. The response has been tremendous," she said. "If a hospital wants to take more than one, we will be very grateful, of course."

The burn units at UPMC Mercy and West Penn Hospital said last week they are evaluating the situation, but relief organizers hope they agree.

A team of doctors and nurses was set to fly Tuesday out of Washington aboard a plane flown by International SOS, the world's largest medical and travel services company.

The company refused to comment on the mission, citing confidentiality agreements it has with clients, but Dr. Chernyk said the team and crew were flying without pay.

The only cost was $110,000 for fuel and landing fees for the plane, all raised by Ukrainians in the United States and Canada.

Mr. Mylovanov, who is in touch daily with his father, two sisters and many friends in Kiev, said the money will now go for medical equipment and the evacuation of patients to Poland and the Czech Republic. France has also accepted some patients.

The less critically injured victims can be driven to Poland, he said, but the burn victims may not be evacuated now because they need to be transported by air ambulance.

"They will have to weather the storm," he said.

Not all the victims are protesters; many of the most badly burned are military police officers injured by molotov cocktails.

Some have scattered and are on the run because they fear for their lives, said Mr. Mylovanov. But others may be in military or local hospitals and in need of burn treatment.

Mr. Mylovanov said the military police, many of whom are draftees, deserve treatment as much as injured protesters.

"I want to help everyone, I don't care who they are," Mr. Mylovanov said.

Dr. Chernyk said the Ukrainian Federation is also looking for host families in the U.S. who can take in patients after they are released from hospitals. In some cases, their recovery could take years, requiring a major commitment from a U.S. family.

Mr. Mylovanov, who came to America in 1999 and to Pittsburgh in August, said he was confident that Western Pennsylvania's Ukrainian community is large enough -- some estimates put it at 50,000 -- that some host families here would come forward.

"We will be able to do it in Pittsburgh," he said.

On Saturday at the St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in South Side, congregants gathered for an evening liturgy. They're losing sleep, constantly talking about and praying for Ukrainians.

Irene Czornij Mathews of Baldwin, who has been attending St. John for more than six decades, said she wants to see an election of the people.

"That's what they're fighting for. You see people in Freedom Square, and it breaks my heart. These are my countrymen," she said.

The protests in Kiev began Nov. 21 with public demonstrations demanding closer alignment by President Viktor Yanukovych's government with the European Union.

The first clashes between protesters and riot police began on Nov. 24, sparking waves of violence in Kiev culminating this month with street battles that left 80 dead and hundreds injured.

Mr. Yanukovych fled Kiev and resurfaced last week in Russia. With the Russian military mobilizing in Crimea on Saturday, the region could plunge into further chaos.

"This battle is about the Western ideology of accountability of government versus the Eastern ideology that the state can impose its will on the people," said Mr. Mylovanov. "It's really about whether democracy works and people can put pressure on the government."


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