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People around the globe have been moved by the horrible images of Ukrainians in distress, fleeing their homes after the Russian invasion began in late February. But the scope of the situation can be difficult to comprehend.
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 UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It’s the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II, the UN says.
More than 4,500 miles away in Anchorage, Alaska, paramedic-turned-nurse Teresa Gray mobilized to help. Late last month, through her nonprofit Mobile Medics International, she and several volunteers traveled to Galati, Romania, where they provided care – and comfort – to hundreds of Ukrainians.
“These people have lost everything – their homes, their family members, their country. I knew the hardships they’re going through,” Gray said. “Because we’ve done this before, in other countries, I knew that we (could) make a difference for them.”
After creating her nonprofit six years ago, Gray has sent medical teams to natural disasters and refugee crises in the US and around the world. Her organization’s work is all done by volunteers, with travel and supplies funded through donations and assistance from other nonprofits.
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 able to go into remote areas – a need she recognized after working with other groups.
“There’s amazing people doing amazing work out there, but they’re very stationary. They come in, they set up, and patients come to them. I really saw a need for basically an ambulance-type response,” she said.
When her group members deploy, they’re prepared to be entirely self-sustaining. This ensures that they can work for days at a time without taxing the local infrastructure.
“We can bring our own food, our own water, our own sleeping accommodations,” she said. “We try to take basically an ambulance in a backpack.”
When they deploy, it’s normally within 72 hours of a disaster to fill the gap before larger groups are fully operational. Their missions typically last seven to 10 days.
But the Ukraine crisis required a different type of response. Four days after the invasion, one of her volunteers from England began driving along the western border of Ukraine to assess where their help would be most needed. Eventually, they determined that Romania was overwhelmed by refugees but lacked infrastructure other countries, like Poland, had.
Going to the border of a war zone raised other concerns.
“This is the most dangerous mission we’ve ever done,” Gray told CNN prior to her departure from the US. “We’re taking the necessary medicine 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 told about hundreds of refugees on a university campus who had very limited medical care. When they arrived at the campus in Galati on March 26, Gray was surprised.
“What we were expecting to see was large groups of people housed in tent cities or in large buildings, and actually they are housing these refugees in individual dorm rooms,” she said. “They’ve got food, they’ve got shelter, but it’s still a large group of refugees. The trauma is the same.”
Gray’s team staffed a 24-hour clinic and went room to room, caring for the 300 refugees with the help of interpreters. The problems they treated ranged from a flu outbreak among the children to chronic health problems in the elderly, which posed 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’s your underlying condition, what medication were you on in Ukraine and what is the equivalent in Romania.”
The group also helped organize a warehouse of donated goods, delivered supplies, and cared for other nearby refugees. When one 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 would drive her to the border so (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. “
That interaction embodies Gray’s approach to her work.
“It isn’t just about fixing the broken arm or giving you medicine. It’s making that human connection,” she said. “Human suffering has no borders. 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 way into the medical field?
Teresa Gray: Growing up in Michigan, my godmother was a paramedic instructor, and she would drag me down to the firehouse and make me be a mock victim. I would have to be bandaged and splinted and all sorts of things while they practiced their skills. I loved it. After high school, I stumbled across an ad for an EMT, and I thought, “I’ll go give it a shot,” and it all made sense to me. I knew in that moment I had found my career.
I started as an EMT, became a paramedic. Eventually I moved to Alaska and ended up being a critical-care flight paramedic. Our cities are hundreds of miles apart, so our ambulances are Lear jets. We fly to the villages, pick people up and bring them back to major cities. I’ve picked up patients in dogsleds, on snow machines – whatever we needed to do to make it happen, I’ve tried all the different avenues of paramedicine. I’ve loved them all. Now I’m a registered nurse, but I also still hold my paramedic license.
CNN: What led you to get involved in disaster response work?
Gray: In late 2015, I had semi-retired. I was a stay-at-home mom, and I was watching TV and I saw the 3-year-old Syrian child on the beach of Lesbos face down in the water. I had not really been aware of what was going on over 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 stepping off the boats, soaking wet, hypothermic. It was heartbreaking. But I made a difference for people.
CNN: In addition to natural and humanitarian disasters, your group also does medical sustainability missions.
Gray: We will find communities that are chronically medically underserved, and we ask them to commit five years to building their own medical infrastructure, and we support them during that time. We’ve done that with the Philippines very successfully. We normally go in twice a year and we give them the equipment, the supplies, the medications they need, and the ongoing training. And then we also mentor them and support them through telemedicine.
When we first started going to a remote island in the Philippines, they had a huge population of cleft-palate babies being born, just simply because their nutrition wasn’t good. Within three years, we eliminated cleft-palate babies on that island by giving out prenatal vitamins. That’s all it took – but that’s what it took. So that’s what we do. It doesn’t matter what you need, if we can provide that for you, we will.
Want to get involved? Check out the Mobile Medics International website and see how to help.
To donate to Mobile Medics International via GoFundMe, click here