Return to Ukraine: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that recorded news from areas across Ukraine, including Milwaukee's sister city of Irpin, from June to July of 2023. It was the second time in the span of a year that the award-winning Wisconsin news organization traveled to the country during the war. The purpose of this journalism project was to document a humanitarian aid mission by the Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, and report about conditions 17 months after Russia's brutal full-scale invasion.

“It’s difficult to live in a country that has war, and to work in a country that has war. You can’t have friends. You can’t have dreams, because you don’t know … will you have tomorrow?” – Dr. Marta Sheremet

The deliberate targeting of hospitals in Ukraine by Russian forces has been a core military tactic since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, aimed at weakening the healthcare system and creating fear among the civilian population.

By attacking hospitals, Russian forces hope to disrupt medical care, hinder emergency response capabilities, and undermine the resilience of the Ukrainian people. Such actions are clear violations of international humanitarian law and have been routinely condemned as war crimes.

Associated Press photojournalist Evgeniy Maloletka showed that condition when he captured one of the most defining moments of the war. The world was stunned by his March 9, 2022, image of a fatally wounded pregnant woman in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. It showed her left hand on her bloodied lower left abdomen.

The picture drove home the horror of Russia’s brutal onslaught early in the war. The 32-year-old woman, Iryna Kalinina, died of her injuries a half-hour after giving birth to the lifeless body of her baby, named Miron.

Hospitals across Ukraine, particularly in central hub locations like Lviv and Kyiv, could never have been prepared for the volume and complexity of cases they would face after February 23, 2022. At every level, Ukraine’s hospitals face enormous shortages of equipment, supplies, and staff.

Not even the COVID-19 pandemic experience could have prepared Ukraine’s healthcare system for the level of need the war created, or the associated danger when hospitals became a prime focus of attacks on civilian infrastructure.

A flood of complex medical cases are sent from forward locations to rear areas for treatment, while the very specialized physicians best qualified to treat those cases are called away to serve on the frontlines.

Milwaukee Independent was embedded with the team from Friends of Be an Angel, the Milwaukee-based nonprofit founded by Anya Verkhovskaya, on a humanitarian mission to Ukraine for several weeks in June and July.

Dr. Douglas Davis, who has been deeply involved in medical relief efforts through the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America (UMANA), was instrumental in organizing many of our hospital visits and gaining the necessary security clearances.

One of the hospitals we toured was the Western Ukrainian Specialized Children’s Medical Center. It was the facility that processed Oleksandr Kutarenko, known as Sasha, who was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) and recently brought to Milwaukee for medical care.

> READ: Milwaukee offers Ukrainian refugee family life-saving treatment for son’s genetic condition

Dr. Marta Sheremet, a specialist in SMA, and her hospital’s partnership with the Women’s Movement for the Future have been providing medical evacuations and treatments in Europe and America for children suffering from long-term genetic diseases. Hospitals in Ukraine simply lacked the resources to offer all the specialized care that was needed.

“It was a touching experience to see the reality that Dr. Sheremet, her staff, and the critically ill children have to face daily,” said Verkhovskaya in a video she recorded showing those conditions on social media. “From the taped windows – to prevent glass scattering due to the shockwave of explosions, to the dark corridors of the bomb shelter beneath the hospital. They were all things I never expected to see in a hospital, and they are routine here.”

At the time of the visit in late June, Dr. Sheremet’s hospital was treating one hundred patients. Earlier in the year, her hospital with a handful of doctors had been overwhelmed by caring for more than one thousand.

“It was particularly distressing to see the conditions where critically ill children must shelter from Russian air raids,” added Verkhovskaya. “We are thankful for all the brave doctors and medical staff who stand strong and protect these precious children.”

At the Maternity Hospital in the Kyiv region, the birthing rooms were as elegant as anything an expecting mother in Milwaukee would expect. That was before the war started. Because Russian hypersonic missiles could hit the facility faster than mothers in labor could be moved to a bomb shelter, all births were taking place below ground. While safe and kept surgically clean, the areas could only be described as stepping back in time to something like Winston Churchill’s World War 2 bunker.

In Ukraine, any woman can give birth at any hospital free of charge. But they usually chose hospitals for logistical reasons, like what facility was nearby for travel when labor started. The Maternity Hospital that Milwaukee Independent visited in early July also did prenatal care in the field. Teams often traveled into occupied areas to make sure pregnancies could survive the stressful war conditions, compounded by the lack of food or medical supplies. Such field programs were often privately funded through charitable foundations.

“After spending so many days experiencing the traumatic conditions of sick children or soldiers torn apart by explosives, it was more shocking to step into a hospital that only cared for the delivery of new life. The little babies brought instant joy. They cast such a warm light, it was easy to forget about the darkness outside … at least for a short time.” – Lee Matz, Milwaukee Independent

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Series: Return to Ukraine

Lее Mаtz

Milwaukee Independent has reported on Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine since it began on February 24, 2022. In May of 2022, Milwaukee Independent was the first news organization from Wisconsin to report from Milwaukee’s Sister City of Irpin after its liberation. That work has since been recognized with several awards for journalistic excellence. Between late June and early July of 2023, Milwaukee Independent staff returned to Ukraine for a second assignment to report on war after almost a year. The editorial team was embedded with a Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, on a humanitarian aid mission across Ukraine. For several weeks, Milwaukee Independent documented the delivery of medical supplies to military and civilian hospitals, and was a witness to historic events of the war as they unfolded.

Return to Ukraine: Reports about a humanitarian mission from Milwaukee after a year of war