Montana woman reflects on work delivering medical supplies to Ukraine
As Russian missiles continue to strike Ukraine, a Montana woman can only watch — and hope — that crucial medical supplies she recently delivered to the area are helping.
Valerie Hellerman is the founder of Hands On Global, a nonprofit organization based in Helena that provides basic health care to remote underserved areas and refugee camps around the world. She returned in December from a trip to western Ukraine and spoke to Yellowstone Public Radio’s Orlinda Worthington about her experience.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Orlinda Worthington: Valerie, thank you for visiting with me. In full disclosure I went on one of your trips to India with you a few years ago. Tell me about this most recent trip.
Valerie Hellerman: This trip was to bring complex orthopedic supplies to three surgeons. This orthopedic equipment is limb saving. Due to the bomb blast and bullet wounds there's a lot of amputations and this equipment gives a chance to save that limb.
The other goal of that mission was to revisit the Mahala orphanage, which is in Chernivtsi, western Ukraine. The orphanage houses 51 disabled children. Forty-one of them were moved in from the front lines, because I mean, it's impossible to take care of a disabled child in a war zone.
Valerie, what were the conditions like where you were staying and where you were working?
So, we were working in Chernivtsi, and it had only had two missile strikes, so it was a relatively safe city. There were many IDPs, internally displaced people there. The population of the city more than doubled since the war.
And so, there was limited electric, limited internet, limited phone service, depending on what towers were hit on what day. But for the entire time I was there, there was three hours of electric on and three hours throughout the day, every day of the week.
It’s worse in some other areas of the country, but it still just seems strange to say just two bomb strikes. You know, they’re lucky.
It is quite something. But the day before we were supposed to leave for Kyiv to deliver this equipment, there were 60 missile strikes, some of which hit the city, 50 were intercepted. But that was our decision to not go to Kyiv, but rather to use this underground medical supply delivery system, which was almost like a James Bond movie. We were told to meet, you know a descriptive car, meet a guy with a description of his hat and his name, and we had a password To deliver this equipment at 605 on the corner of this street. And hand over 300 pounds of very complex, very expensive orthopedic equipment.
But the supplies actually got there. And apparently there's a fear of Russian spies in the midst so that's what that was all about.
How much did you and the other two women that were with you feel that you were in danger?
I did not feel in danger in Chernivtsi. It’s very interesting. There's this normalcy that the population comes to dealing with war. From here you think, oh my God, there's a war. Everything must stop.
But the truth is they have to live with it. They go to the supermarket, they go have coffee. When the air raids come on, they go to a shelter and then when the air raid is off, they come out and they finish their coffee or finish their shopping.
I suppose it just feels important to keep some sort of normalcy going in their life.
I think that they have to. The Ukrainians are an incredibly resilient people, and they love their country and they do not want to live under Russian occupation. So, they are willing to put up with a lot.
This is not only physically demanding work, very emotionally draining work. And what keeps you going, what makes you continue to do this? Really, just volunteering your time and your money.
Yeah, that's a good question. I feel like I am a privileged human being in my life. Last night when it was so cold, I just said to my husband, 'Oh, I'm cold.' And he said, 'Oh, we'll just turn up the heat.' And it struck me what a privilege that is.
I just feel like if I can do something about that, yes, it is giving them medicine, it is bringing supplies, but sometimes it's just holding the hand and looking into somebody's eyes and saying, I care and I know about you. And that feeds my going back.