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An Irish doctor in Ukraine: We dispense tourniquets, wound seals, shears to cut away clothes

Kyiv Letter: Despite the extremely difficult circumstances Ukrainian medics work under, no one complains

Pounding rhythm. My pulse is an iron hammer. I’m standing in the short corridor between train carriages. The metal plates grind and shudder and clank beneath my feet.

I check my phone – 4am. Soon, the border, and Poland.

Outside the window is a black smear. The occasional lights are like comets with long streaking tails.

These are the Bloodlands of the second World War. Bloodshed and death have returned to Ukraine.


I think back on the last week in Kyiv.

Seven of us have come to run two back-to-back two-day “train-the-trainer” courses in advanced pre-hospital emergency interventions for more than 100 Ukrainian first responders – military and civilian. The course has been developed by UCD’s Ukraine Trauma Project. This is the third visit to Ukraine since the invasion.

We bring translated teaching materials, simulation mannequins, 3-D printed bones, training equipment, artificial blood.

It’s an intense, immersive course. The participants train in practical skills; they also learn teaching skills so they can train others. On top of this, they have assignments and an assessment.

At the end of each course, we dispense tourniquets, haemostatic bandages, ampoules of tranexamic acid (a drug to control massive haemorrhage), special drills to insert needles into bone (when there are no veins), shears to cut away clothes to expose wounds, chest wound seals, pelvic fracture binders, anti-hypothermia foil blankets and much more besides.

Most of the participants are in their 20s and 30s. A third of them are women. Most have seen horrific trauma. Those who work on the frontline tell us that they are specifically targeted – especially by drones.

They are all eager to learn and pick up things quickly. Despite the extremely difficult circumstances they work under, no one complains.

A young woman who sold make-up online before the war is a combat medic; she thinks nothing of putting her life in danger to save the lives of others.

The idealism of a young obstetrician from Odesa restores my lost faith. He arrives on the morning of the course and leaves on a late evening train when it’s over – and is back working in the maternity hospital the next day.

A woman whose husband was killed on the front line a week ago tells me she is doing this for her husband, her children, her country. She tells me “my husband is my hero”. She hopes they will retrieve his body soon.

Lost for words I light a candle in St Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery for him, for her, for all the course participants, for all whom they have lost. A priest holds an icon up for long queue to kiss – suddenly I’m an altar boy back in Dublin in the 1960s.

Outside St Michael’s, children play in sunshine on a tank – captured, rusting, covered in graffiti.

On the last day of each course, it’s highly emotional as we say goodbye. The seven of us have lumps in our throats saying “Beannacht Dé oraibh go léir”. It’s like no other teaching experience any of us have had.

Before I leave Kyiv, I go to a play. It’s called Ukraine in Flames. I don’t understand the dialogue – but I understand the meaning. There are no air-raid alarms during the performance. At the end, people are standing and clapping and cheering and crying. So am I.

Afterwards, I meet one of the actors. The last time I saw him was in Dublin a few months ago when he was playing in Brian Friel’s Translations. On his last night in Dublin, he was viciously assaulted – but he has only good things to say about Dublin. I have a coffee with him and the theatre manager. They are passionate about the importance of keeping the theatre going during the war. “Our culture is worth fighting for,” the theatre manager says.

On the way back to the hotel I come across a group of teenage girls making a pop-video on the street. I WhatsApp a video clip to my family and friends with a one-word message: “Resilience”.

Before I go to the train station, I stand on a bridge over the Dnipro. In my hand, I have a photo of my parents taken in 1954 by Arthur Fields, the Ukrainian-born photographer who stood on Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge for 50 years. I can’t fully explain it – but coming here is close to my heart.

Soon the train will stop. The border guard will give me back my passport – but I know we’ll be back again soon.

Chris Fitzpatrick is a clinical professor in UCD and Vice-Chair of the UCD Ukraine Trauma Project Steering Group