Maine Med nurse practitioner returns from Ukraine after helping wounded soldiers, refugees, orphans

The first few hours after Natalia Iantsevych arrived home from Ukraine were almost unbearable.

She watched people walking around Portland, smiling, going about their business as usual. But she couldn’t stop thinking about the innocent people dying on the other side of the world.

Days before, she was in Lviv, where the howl of air-raid sirens echoed across the city day and night. Refugees fleeing Russian attacks crowded into train stations, and funerals for soldiers killed in battle were held in the streets. Iantsevych hid in shelters when the city was bombarded with missiles.

Natalia Iantsevych had to hide in shelters when air-raid sirens sounded in downtown Lviv. Photo by Natalia Iantsevych

“It’s devastating,” said Iantsevych, who grew up in Ukraine and now works at a nurse practitioner in the department at Maine Medical Center that focuses on ear, nose and throat issues.

Iantsevych, 39, spent a month in Lviv, working 14 hours a day to care for wounded soldiers, assess the health of orphans transferred from occupied areas of the country and volunteer at Palyanytsia, a charitable organization that distributes medical supplies. In her free time, she went to the train station to hand out pizza to women and children who’d become refugees.

While she was gone, her Portland friend Anna Stasiv, who is also a nurse practitioner from Ukraine, spearheaded an effort to raise more than $28,000 through GoFundMe to gather and ship donated medical supplies to their home country. The Portland nonprofit Partners for World Health helped Stasiv ship 26 pallets of supplies to Ukraine last week.

Iantsevych returned to Maine on Thursday and is hoping to go back to Ukraine in six months to help in areas where hospital infrastructure has been destroyed. Now more than ever, she feels she cannot just stand by and watch while innocent Ukrainians are killed.

“What we see on the TV is just the tip of the iceberg. They just show a little tiny fraction of the genocide, of the killings going on right now in Ukraine,” she said. “I would like people to understand that during the war so many lives have been taken away for no reason.”

After Russia Invasion Ukraine on Feb. 24, Iantsevych watched the news constantly and stayed in close contact with her father, aunt and uncle in Kovel, a city near the Polish border in northwestern Ukraine. Her family is still there and is as safe as possible, she says, but “there is no safety in Ukraine with missiles attacking.”

When Iantsevych decided she would take a leave from her job and go back to Ukraine, her sister was able to connect her with Ukrainian military personnel who said Iantsevych’s help was needed in Lviv. Injured troops from Kyiv and Kharkiv were being taken there to be treated because it was a safer area.

Lviv, about three hours from her hometown and 50 miles from the border with Poland, is a critical stop for refugees fleeing the war. Once a tourism hub, its focus now is helping people who stop at the train station as they attempt to move to Poland or other parts of western Ukraine. The city also has become a staging area for people arriving in Ukraine to volunteer and deliver supplies.

Iantsevych knew the journey to Lviv would be complicated because there currently is no air travel to the city. Her plans to get there by train from Vienna fell through because the trains were not running. Her sister was able to make connections with people in Budapest, who arranged for Iantsevych to ride the 10 hours to Lviv on a small train packed with supplies.

Once she got there, Iantsevych went to a military base that was processing people coming into Ukraine to help. She said she was asked if she would be willing to go to a combat zone but she didn’t feel she had the necessary experience to be on the front lines. Instead, she worked in a hospital for wounded soldiers.

During her spare time in Lviv, Natalia Iantsevych helped hand out pizza to mothers and their children. Lviv has become a hub for fleeing Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine. Photo by Natalia Iantsevych

Two days after she visited that base, it was hit by 36 missiles and destroyed. Everyone who was there at the time of the attack died, she said.

Iantsevych divided her time between the hospital, orphans and the medical supply effort. She said working with the children, some orphaned by war, was heartbreaking. One day, she was out running from pharmacy to pharmacy, trying to buy enough ear drops to treat the children, when the sound of sirens ripped through the air. She ran for shelter in a nearby building.

Crowded in with other people, she heard what sounded like thunder, and her first thought was that she should have brought an umbrella. She didn’t realize she was hearing bombs until she stepped outside to a sky blackened by smoke.

“That’s when it clicked in my head,” she said. “Every time the sirens sound an attack can happen. It seemed more real to me because I’d seen it and I’d heard it.”

Lviv had been spared intense bombardment during the first month of the invasion. Rocket attacks on the city on March 26 came hours before President Biden delivered a forceful condemnation of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The attacks came as a surprise and were an indication of escalation by Russian troops, according to news reports.

For the rest of her time in Ukraine, sirens sounded three to four times every night and half a dozen times during the day.

One day during her stay, Iantsevych attended the funeral her friend Rostislav, 40, who died in battle near Kyiv. One soldier held his photo while others moved his casket to the back of a van.

While in Lviv, Natalia Iantsevych attended the funeral of a friend, Rostislav, who died in battle near Kyiv. He was 40. Photo by Natalia Iantsevych

As she traveled from Lviv last week, Iantsevych met people who fled Mariupol, a besieged port city where more than 5,000 civilians have been killed. They told her of the violence and torture of innocent civilians.

“Those stories will stick with me for the rest of my life,” she said.

Despite the atrocities, the people of Ukraine are united and ready to fight, Iantsevych said. She was impressed with the country’s military for “doing impossible things with the supplies they have.”

“I don’t feel like they will ever surrender to Russia,” she said. “They will stand up for themselves and their country.”

Back in Maine, Iantsevych is finding comfort in quiet. As she woke up Friday morning, she lay in bed with her eyes closed, waiting for sirens. Instead, she heard birdsong and realized she was home.

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