Utah pediatrician Gordon Duval, DO, was planning to get away with his wife, Leona, and their five children for spring break. However, instead of taking a family trip, he traveled to war-torn Ukraine to care for orphaned children.
“It started off with having that desire to go help out as a physician,” Duval, of Mountain West Medical Group in Tooele, told MedPage Today.
Though he was initially concerned that his family would be worried about his safety in a dangerous situation, Duval said he was instead encouraged by their support.
“My wife was a huge advocate,” he noted. “She was quite the allied team member. Same thing with my parents.”
In fact, Leona found the Utah-based nonprofit August Mission, which helped facilitate Duval’s trip. Their friends and neighbors also donated medical supplies and money — a group of local children set up a hot chocolate stand and raised $15 that Duval said he used to buy two bottles of amoxicillin, while another friend presented Duval with a tote bag full of medical supplies, including gauze and glucometers. Local hospitals contributed supplies, and a nearby pharmacy helped with purchasing drugs at manufacturing cost.
By the day of Duval’s flight to Warsaw, Poland in mid-March, he had 21 suitcases of medical supplies. He admitted he didn’t think the airline would allow such a haul, but “we just had this leap of faith,” he said.
Indeed, all of the supplies — some 1,400 lb — made it through, and at no charge.
Once in Poland, figuring out transportation into and around western Ukraine was a complicated and tedious process, given poor road conditions, and surveillance for Russian spies and saboteurs, Duval said.
“I went into this knowing that this is a country at war … you don’t control all the variables,” he added.
After he and a team working on behalf of August Mission secured transportation that could accommodate their many suitcases and could navigate security checkpoints, he spent a night at a safe house in Lviv before heading slightly farther east.
Duval and a representative from August Mission finally settled at a local orphanage. While he wasn’t sure what to expect, Duval found that the need was general healthcare, “even just the ordinary bread and butter stuff,” including ear infections and asthma exacerbations, rather than a multitude of war-related injuries.
“They don’t have the resources to get it addressed,” he said. “Being able to have those medicines there and the medical supplies allowed us to be able to take care of them.”
The children he saw were mostly school-age and a combination of those who had been orphaned before the war broke out, and those who had been orphaned as a result of it, he explained.
As a pediatrician, Duval’s goals were to take care of patients, assess the needs to support future work in Ukraine, and make sure the donated medical supplies were delivered to where they were needed.
He said his decision to help the children of Ukraine wasn’t made flippantly, given the responsibility he feels to his own family. Rather, it was one he felt compelled to make and that he felt supported to do.
“I was seeing what these Ukrainian refugees were experiencing,” Duval said. “And they need help. I went into medicine to be able to help out people when they’re sick and injured, and I saw that there was that huge need.”
Bruce Roberts, a retired veteran and founder and CEO of August Mission, told MedPage Today that there is a meaningful need for volunteer physicians in Ukraine.
Duval was the first doctor who traveled to Ukraine with the nonprofit, Roberts explained. An emergency room physician and an optometrist are scheduled for volunteer trips beginning April 1.
“We don’t do just one thing, we determine what the need is,” Roberts said. “That’s the problem we try to solve.”
Duval, who returned home to Utah this past weekend, also stressed the ongoing need for support.
“I would say that our mission to help the Ukrainian people that were suffering was greatly augmented by lots and lots of nonmedical people who pitched in, in various ways,” Duval said. “Instead of me going with a suitcase or two of medical supplies or medicine, I was able to go with 21 suitcases.”