‘Look for the Helpers’: Medical Fellow, Undergraduate Students Assisting Ukraine

April 11, 2022 By Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu

Fred Rogers of the beloved children’s program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was quoted as saying, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” 

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to take a human toll, students at the University of Virginia are using their passion, drive and skills to do what they can to be helpers.

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Sending Medical Kits to the Front Lines

Last month, Maria Geba, a first-year infectious diseases fellow in the School of Medicine, and her partner, emergency room nurse and paramedic Joseph Shelton, traveled to Eastern Europe to deliver individual trauma kits to rescuers serving on the front lines in Ukraine.

The project got underway when the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America reached out to Geba, who is Ukrainian-American. “We still have family in western Ukraine, so this war has certainly affected us personally, and I think from the very beginning, we as a family had always been searching for ways to help,” she said.

A smiling woman in a puffy coat standing in an airport parking garage with several large suitcases and duffel bags stacked on carts.

Maria Geba departed JFK Airport with several suitcases packed with medical kits. (Contributed photo)

Geba and Shelton’s skill set was perfect, pairing their medical expertise with Shelton’s experience having founded Mideast Rescue, which supports local rescuers on the ground in that region of the world.

They got to work making the kits, which contained things like tourniquets, chest seals, pressure bandages, trauma shears and wound-packing gauze.

They left for Warsaw, Poland, on March 10 with about 250 medical kits packed into several suitcases. Once they got their bearings, the pair headed to the Polish city of Przemysl, which is about 20 minutes from Ukraine’s western border.

From there, Shelton made his way into Ukraine, meeting his contact in the city of Lviv. He said crossing into the rattled country was eerie.

“The air quality was so bad,” he said. “In the eastern part of their country, there’s massive fires. Oil depots are being bombed. All kinds of buildings are being destroyed,” he said. “I imagine that smoky atmosphere over the western part of the country was actually from fires on the eastern side.”

With many women and children having fled the country since Russia’s incursion Feb. 24, “It was really wild to see the streets just essentially filled with young men,” Shelton said. “Right now, they’re obviously not allowing military-aged men to leave. I don’t think they’re being forced to fight, but they’re not allowed to leave the country.”

Shelton’s goal was to deliver the kits to people who are trained to know how to use them. “These kits are given to people who can train others on the ground,” Geba said. “Not everyone knows how to use a tourniquet, so we thought that was really important.”

The first infusion of emergency medical kits was made possible by what Geba called a “significant donation” from a member of the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America, as well as staff and faculty from UVA’s Division of Infectious Diseases.

It was not a one-and-done mission. Now that Geba and Shelton have established a delivery pathway for the medical kits, they are continuing their efforts by mail. Each kit costs $45, and donations can be made here.

Hoos for Ukraine

A group of undergraduate students also is funneling aid to those affected by the war, selling custom-made T-shirts and stickers. Tiffany Zhang, a third-year student in the McIntire School of Commerce, says the idea came to her in class one day. Why not sell the ephemera and donate 100% of the profits to an organization?

“I knew I wanted to help get more involved with supporting Ukraine, but I didn’t have a lot of money myself to donate,” she said. “Because Andriy is Ukrainian, I reached out to him. I was like, ‘Hey, do you want to help me with this? Do you want to work together on it?’ So that’s how he started.”

An illustration of a hand holding blue and yellow flowers, with the words "pick flowers not a fight" written on the fingers

Second-year student Sophia Wilbourn is of Russian and Ukrainian descent and has designed all of the art. (Contributed photo)

Andriy Shalkivskiy is a second-year student to whom UVA Today readers were introduced in early March in an article about how some Ukrainian students were coping in the early days of the war.

Zhang and Shalkivskiy identified a social commerce company that allows users to create and sell custom products, then established an online store selling long- and short-sleeve T-shirts and stickers that sport slogans such as “Hoos for Ukraine” in the national colors of the country, blue and gold.

The company only takes the production cost, and then every cent above that, we get to keep,” Zhang said. “We’re donating 100% of our proceeds. So everything else goes to Ukraine.”

The students’ fundraising goal is $1,500 and purchases can be made here.

The students have selected Mercy Corps as the recipient of the proceeds. The organization is working in Ukraine, Romania and Poland to support humanitarian needs by providing funding to local organizations.

When UVA Today spoke with Shalkivskiy last month, he was struggling with the news that his elderly grandfather was still in Kyiv and working to support local troops in the midst of war.

“He is a lot better,” Shalkivskiy said Monday. “The Russians have retreated from where he lives, and there is reconstruction going on in the region.” In other welcome news, Shalkivskiy’s grandmother, who had fled to the countryside, has returned to her husband in Kyiv.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications