A team of Tulsa doctors have returned from Ukraine after spending a week helping internally displaced refugees, treating mental disorders and providing counseling.
The five-member medical assistance team of In its international imagean organization dedicated to helping those in need through medicine, was led by Dr. Brandon Ganzer, faculty physician for the In His Image family residency program.
Ganzer said the team left Tulsa on June 5 and was stationed in Uzhhorod, Ukraine – a town occupied by Ukrainians seeking shelter from the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine. He said the city had converted several facilities, such as university dormitories and hotels, to accommodate the influx of fellow Ukrainians.
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According to a International Organization for Migration survey7.7 million people have been forced to flee their homes and resettle in other parts of Ukraine since the invasion began in February.
Ganzer said the medical assistance team usually did not witness serious physical trauma, but treated many chronic illnesses, as people forced to flee their homes but still within the country’s borders were not not able to see their own doctors.
The Russian blockade in the Black Sea limits the number of medical supplies available in Ukraine, exacerbating medical needs in the country, Ganzer said. Last week Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said millions could starve if the blockade continued.
The biggest problem facing internally displaced people was mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal tendencies, Ganzer said.
Refugees told their stories and experiences of the conflict, Ganzer said. He remembers a story told by a young Ukrainian whose mother was captured, tortured and then extorted for ransom. While her mother was eventually released, she died shortly thereafter.
Ganzer said the young man suffered from PTSD and had vivid flashbacks of the event, struggling to tell the difference between reality and hallucinations.
He said other refugees had recounted seeing elderly women and children being targeted and shot by Russians, struggling to let those memories go.
“Sometimes I felt like I was just sitting there and feeling the weight of this hurt or this pain,” Ganzer said. “You don’t feel what they feel. You empathize with them – (feel) just a small degree of what they are actually going through.
Despite the trauma and hardship faced by the refugees, Ganzer said there was a general sense of patriotism among Ukrainians. He compared the unity shown by Ukrainians during the conflict to the efforts of the American factories retooled produce military resources during World War II.
He said people also showed gratitude to the medical assistance team, often asking them why they were traveling around the world to help them.
“Thanks to our translators, we have listened and advised a lot and we pray for them,” Ganzer said. “But the part of the job… that seemed to have the most impact was just the human touch and the compassion that our team brought.”
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