Dr. Anthony Fong, a member of BC Emergency Medicine Network and clinical assistant professor at UBC Department of Emergency Medicine, recently deployed to Ukraine to offer medical assistance. We asked him about his experience volunteering with the Canadian Medical Assistance Teams (CMAT) and to share some stories and insights about working in an area of active conflict.
How did you get involved with CMAT and what motivated you to go on this mission to Ukraine? Did you have a personal connection there?
Dr. Fong: My interest in global health goes back to medical school, where I was lucky enough to go to Cambodia for two months to do tuberculosis surveys with health workers in rural areas. As a family medicine resident, I studied community health for a month in Bogota, Colombia. In 2009, for part of my third-year residency in international health at UBC, I volunteered as a medical officer at an HIV primary care NGO in Kenya. Ukraine is the second time I have volunteered for CMAT. The first was in November 2020, as part of a joint deployment with Humanity First Canada. I was the medical lead of a disaster-response team to Honduras after they were hit by two hurricanes in the span of a month.
I have a close personal Ukrainian friend from the Donetsk region, and I reached out to her to see how she was doing as soon as I heard about the invasion. CMAT’s call to deploy coincidentally came a couple days later. I never questioned the need to go and was lucky to have colleagues kindly offer to cover my shifts on short notice.
Can you share your impressions of the collapse of emergency care in Ukraine and its effect on Ukrainians?
Dr. Fong: Right now, the Ukrainian health-care system is focused on delivering care to the worst hit parts of the country, mostly in the East. Health-care facilities have not been spared from the ravages of war – a children’s hospital in Mariupol was destroyed a month ago, and many hospitals’ patients have been evacuated to more stable areas. In some cases, admitted patients in Ukraine had to be transferred to hospitals in Poland for continuing care.
In the first days after Feb. 24, there were no health-care services at the congested border between Ukraine and Poland, and tens of thousands of people waited in line to cross the border on foot in sub-zero temperatures. It is at this border where we set up our clinic.
Can you tell us about any surprising or unexpected procedures?
Dr. Fong: While most of the medicine we did was low-acuity urgent care, we did see some emergencies. I started a couple of people with chest pain and cardiac risk factors on aspirin, made sure they looked stable, and asked them to go immediately to a Polish hospital after crossing the border, just 100 metres away from our clinic. One day, my colleagues treated a woman who fainted twice in the lineup. She required IV fluids and an ambulance transfer to a Polish hospital. Lastly, on the night shift, we did a “house call” to a tent across the street, where a young man with a history of IV drug use and chronic wounds on his legs was having new onset focal seizures. We managed to wheel him to our clinic to assess him and get him a local ambulance.
What kind of infrastructure did your team have access to and how can we help from here?
Dr. Fong: CMAT is currently very well-stocked with supplies from its generous donors. I’d say the best way to help at this point is to donate to clinically-focused charities with a proven track record working in conflict zones – Doctors Without Borders, Ukrainian Red Cross, and Canadian Red Cross are all reasonable options.
On behalf of everyone at BC Emergency Medicine Network, we sincerely thank Dr. Fong and all our other Canadian medical volunteers abroad for their bravery and service.
You can find Dr. Anthony Fong on Twitter @fongafriend.
All photos provided by Dr. Anthony Fong.
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