CNN — People around the world were moved by the horrifying images of distressed Ukrainians fleeing their homes after the Russian invasion began in late February. But the magnitude of the situation can be difficult to grasp.
More than a quarter of Ukraine’s population has been uprooted since February 24 and more than 4.6 million people have left the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II, according to the UN.
More than 4,500 miles away in Anchorage, Alaska, paramedic-turned-nurse Teresa Gray stepped up to help. Late last month, through her nonprofit organization Mobile Medics International, she and several volunteers traveled to Galati, Romania, where they provided care – and comfort – to hundreds of ‘Ukrainians.
“These people lost everything – their homes, their family members, their country. I knew the hardships they were going through,” Gray said. “Because we’ve done this before, in other countries, I knew we (could) make a difference for them.”
After starting her nonprofit six years ago, Gray has sent medical teams to natural disasters and refugee crises in the United States and around the world. His organization’s work is done entirely by volunteers, with travel and supplies funded by donations and assistance from other nonprofit organizations.
Gray says the group has provided free medical care to more than 30,000 people on five continents.
Gray specializes in sending small mobile teams of four to eight licensed medical volunteers who can travel to remote areas – a need she recognized after working with other groups.
“There are amazing people doing amazing work there, but they’re very stationary. They come in, they settle in, and patients come to them. I really saw the need for an ambulance-type response “, she said.
When his party members deploy, they are ready to be fully self-sufficient. This ensures that they can work for days without overloading the local infrastructure.
“We can bring our own food, our own water, our own sleeping quarters,” she said. “We’re trying to basically take an ambulance in a backpack.”
When they deploy, it normally takes less than 72 hours after a disaster to fill the gap before larger groups are fully operational. Their missions usually last 7 to 10 days.
But the Ukrainian crisis demanded a different kind of response. Four days after the invasion, one of his volunteers from England began driving along Ukraine’s western border to assess where his help would be most needed. Eventually, they determined that Romania was overwhelmed with refugees but lacked infrastructure in other countries, such as Poland.
Going to the border of a war zone raised other concerns.
“This is the most dangerous mission we’ve ever done,” Gray told CNN before he left the United States. “We take the necessary drugs for chemical warfare, in case chemical weapons are deployed. But honestly, the heroes are my volunteers who were begging to go.”
Gray’s team was made aware of hundreds of refugees on a college campus who had very limited medical care. When they arrived at the Galati campus on March 26, Gray was surprised.
“What we expected to see were large groups of people housed in tent cities or in large buildings, and in fact they are accommodating these refugees in individual dormitories,” she said. “They have food, they have shelter, but it’s still a big group of refugees. The trauma is the same.”
Gray’s team manned a 24-hour clinic and went from room to room, treating the 300 refugees with the help of interpreters. The issues they dealt with ranged from an outbreak of flu in children to chronic health conditions in the elderly, which presented a particular challenge.
“They now exist in a country that doesn’t speak your language and doesn’t use the same medicine,” she said. “So we’re trying to figure out what your underlying condition is, what medications were you taking in Ukraine and what’s the equivalent in Romania.”
The group also helped organize a warehouse of donated goods, delivered supplies and cared for other refugees nearby. When a woman, whose elderly mother had been treated for health issues, asked for help, Gray’s volunteers literally went the extra mile.
“She asked us if we could drive her to the border so that (she) and her son could see Ukraine, maybe for the last time,” Gray said. “She asked us for help, so we gave it to her.”
This interaction embodies Gray’s approach to his work.
“It’s not just about fixing the broken arm or giving you medicine. It’s about making that human connection,” she said. “Human suffering has no boundaries. People are people…and love is love.”
CNN’s Kathleen Toner spoke with Gray about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: How did you find your path in the medical field?
Teresa Gray: Growing up in Michigan, my godmother was a paramedic instructor, and she dragged me to the fire station and made me a fake victim. I would have to be bandaged and splinted and all sorts of things while they practiced their skills. I liked it. After high school, I came across an ad for an EMT, and I thought, “I’ll give it a try,” and it all made sense to me. I knew then that I had found my career.
I started as a paramedic, then I became a paramedic. Eventually I moved to Alaska and ended up becoming a critical care paramedic. Our cities are hundreds of miles apart, so our ambulances are Lear jets. We fly to villages, pick people up and bring them back to big cities. I’ve picked up patients in dog sleds, on snowmobiles – whatever we had to do to get there, I tried all the different avenues of paramedic. I liked them all. Now I’m a registered nurse, but I also still have my paramedic license.
CNN: What got you involved in disaster response work?
Gray: At the end of 2015, I was semi-retired. I was a stay-at-home mom, and I was watching TV and saw the 3-year-old Syrian child on the beach in Lesvos face down in the water. I hadn’t really been aware of what was happening in Greece or the Syrian refugee crisis. And so I just decided that I was going to go to Greece and see if I could help. It was life changing. These people were coming down from the boats, soaked, hypothermic. It was heartbreaking. But I made a difference for people.
CNN: In addition to natural and humanitarian disasters, your group also performs medical sustainability missions.
Gray: We will find communities that are chronically underserved medically, and ask them to commit for five years to building their own medical infrastructure, and we support them during that time. We have done this with the Philippines with great success. We normally visit twice a year and give them the equipment, supplies, medications they need and ongoing training. And then we also coach and support them through telemedicine.
When we first started traveling to a remote island in the Philippines, a huge population of babies with cleft palate were being born, simply because their nutrition was not good. In three years, we eliminated babies with cleft palate on this island by giving them prenatal vitamins. That’s all it took – but that’s what it took. So that’s what we’re doing. Whatever you need, if we can provide it, we will.
Want to get involved? Check out the Mobile Medics International website and see how you can help.
To donate to Mobile Medics International through GoFundMe, click here
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