Healing the Wounds of War
The Order helps care for internally displaced persons through various medical partnerships in Ukraine
By Mateusz Ziomber and Columbia staff
Within days of the Russian invasion in late February 2022, Bishop Radosław Zmitrowicz of Kamianets-Podilskyi, Ukraine, made an appeal on behalf of first responders in the region: They were in urgent need of an ambulance and other emergency equipment. Several Knights of Columbus councils in Radom, Poland, sprang into action.
Radom Regional Hospital was withdrawing an ambulance from service due to insufficient heating; the Knights filled it with medical equipment, and Father Gabriel Marciniak, chaplain of St. Casimir Jagiellonian Council 15216, drove it to the Ukrainian border. After waiting eight hours for special permission to enter the country, he delivered the ambulance and equipment to a hospital in Khmelnytskyi, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) east of Lviv.
Stepan Vadym, an orderly at the hospital that received the vehicle, said the donation was a great help. “We have to react quickly when the situation changes critically,” he said. “With the ambulance, patients can be transported faster to other medical facilities.”
In the 18 months since, the Knights of Columbus has continued to make medical care for people affected by the war a priority. Thanks to the Ukraine Solidarity Fund, which has raised more than $21 million to date, the Order has been able to develop fruitful partnerships with several hospitals and health care organizations that serve internally displaced persons and other Ukrainians in need.
On Dec. 5, during his second visit to Ukraine, Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly presented Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital in Lviv with a donation of high-tech endoscopic equipment on behalf of the Order.
“The Knights of Columbus was founded by a parish priest in the United States and his mission was to help women and children,” the supreme knight said. “So we are pleased to be able to help in a small way here in this hospital, in this time of great need for the nation of Ukraine.”
This past July, Ukraine State Deputy Youriy Maletskiy presented a similar donation on behalf of the Knights to the Zolochiv Central District Hospital, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of Lviv.
“Because of various bureaucratic problems, hospitals that are located in smaller cities, on the periphery so to speak, suffer,” Maletskiy explained. “That is exactly why we chose to help this particular hospital, which is smaller in terms of volume, but needs no less support.”
The hospital’s director, Taras Yatsunskiy, affirmed that the donation will have a big impact.
“Thanks to this endoscopic equipment, we will be able to conduct complex surgical operations and deliver high-quality post-surgery care,” said Yatsunskiy, who is also a member of St. John of God Council 17735 in Zolochiv. “Today’s event will be very significant for our community and very tangible for our patients.”
One of the Order’s most significant partnerships is with STEP-IN, a medical initiative specializing in humanitarian crises. The Knights’ first collaboration with STEP-IN began in 2015 to aid displaced persons in Iraq. STEP-IN’s work in Ukraine, which largely mirrors its medical outreach in Iraq, has been compared to creating field hospitals for civilians.
“Our mission is to provide comprehensive health care services to people who are fleeing from violence,” said Dr. Zuzana Ulman, STEP-IN’s head of mission. “We are not working on the front lines, but we are there for those who are already in safer places and need this invisible help.”
With financial support from the Knights, the Slovakian-based organization runs a multidimensional project, providing basic health services and delivering supplies vital for medical staff.
STEP-IN also organizes three types of special training in Ukraine: polytrauma training for medical doctors; first-aid training for civilians; and “psychological first-aid” training, offered mostly to nonmedical personnel, such as priests, who often comfort and care for people suffering from injuries or shock.
“It was a joy for the whole team when the Knights decided to support us here in Ukraine,” said Katarzyna Nowak, the group’s head of programs. “It was really a turning point for STEP-IN in Ukraine because it meant we would be able to provide the services.”
Halyna Chumak is one of the thousands of internally displaced Ukrainians who have been helped by STEP-IN to date.
“I was passing through Belgorod and saw how Kharkiv was bombed,” recounted Chumak, who currently resides in Dnipro with her husband, Viktor. “Viktor got gangrene, and [STEP-IN] volunteers heard about it and gave me supplies and medicine. Now I am taking care of Viktor, and I am very grateful to them.”
The STEP-IN staff know that burnout, trauma and depression are a constant threat to caregivers, so they also organize a mental health awareness program for hospital personnel, nongovernmental workers and volunteers.
Dr. Hanna Martynets, a pediatrician by profession, works at STEP-IN’s Kharkiv clinic as a general practitioner.
“Our mission is to provide comprehensive health care services to people who are fleeing from violence. We are not working on the front lines, but we are there for those who are already in safer places and need this invisible help.”
“We prioritize the IDPs and help everyone who needs medicine,” she said. “Many really need psychological help as well as medical help.”
Some K of C partnerships have focused on mental health. Knights in Ivano-Frankivsk, for example, have worked with the International Catholic Migration Commission, a Vatican agency, to sponsor psychological rehabilitation programs for Ukrainian soldiers and their families.
Other efforts supported by the Ukraine Solidarity Fund have included the distribution of nearly 200 wheelchairs throughout the country in partnership with the Canadian Wheelchair Foundation and the distribution of medical equipment and medicine donated by several Catholic health care organizations.
“Talking to doctors, I often hear, ‘We could save many more lives if we had the necessary equipment,’” said State Deputy Maletskiy.
“Thanks to the Order’s Ukraine Solidarity Fund, we can now say that the Knights of Columbus helps to save lives and improve the quality of life through medical care,” he added. “This is the charism of the Knights of Columbus, what we have always done: caring for widows, children, veterans, and elderly people.”
MATEUSZ ZIOMBER writes from Kraków, Poland.