UVA Brain Surgeon Brings Healing – and Finds It – as a Volunteer in Ukraine

August 8, 2023 By Eric Williamson, williamson@virginia.edu Eric Williamson, williamson@virginia.edu

A University of Virginia neurosurgeon has returned from volunteering in war-torn Ukraine. He dislodged shrapnel, repaired vital tissue and reconstructed skulls, performing 20 surgeries during his three-week July trip.

In a video conference call with journalists last week, Dr. Connor Berlin sometimes spoke as if he was still at Mechnikov Hospital. The facility, located in the city of Dnipro, cares for most of the front line’s seriously injured soldiers.

“What we’re seeing is anything the helmet doesn’t cover,” explained Berlin, who is in his fourth year of residency at UVA Health. He tilted his head and pointed to various entry points, demonstrating how no two patients were the same.

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He added, “Unfortunately, I think war is a very good trainer for surgeons.”

He said he’s still adjusting to being back home. He had just turned off the air raid app on his phone that morning.

Active scene of surgery in Ukraine

Berlin and a Ukrainian colleague take a break between surgeries. (Contributed photo)

Berlin, 30, lives in Charlottesville with his partner, Meredith Chapman, a UVA labor and delivery nurse. Though concerned for his safety, she supported his journey, he said. He went to Dnipro because he was dissatisfied with the average American’s underwhelming response to the war.

“I have very close friends who are, like, ‘Why are you going to Ukraine? Why do you care?’” he said.

To him, the reason remains obvious: Russia is illegally waging war against its neighbor.

Healing Head Wounds

Dnipro is located a few hundred miles removed from Kyiv. But with the fight occurring to both the south and east, that places Dnipro about 70 miles from the front lines. The city functions under an eerie sense of calm. Missiles don’t strike on a daily basis, although a strike did occur the day after Berlin left.

“I would compare it to the blitz during World War II,” he said of the city’s lifestyle. “People aren’t living in fear, or at least they’re not showing it. When you’re working in the hospital, you just completely ignore it. The surgeons aren’t going to stop a craniotomy to seek shelter.”

Surgery in progress

Berlin began his work by assisting other surgeons and building trust. (Contributed photo)

As the primary destination for soldiers with brain and spinal trauma, the 1,600-bed facility’s pace is faster. The injuries are more complex and extensive. Surgeons often perform multiple miracles in one night, the time when the ambulances most often come. In the worst cases, it’s not uncommon for doctors to spend seven hours or more on a patient.

Dr. Rocco Armonda, a neurosurgery attending physician at Georgetown University Medical Center, preceded Berlin’s arrival by a month, building the American relationship with the Ukrainian neurosurgery team.

Berlin, who was the only U.S. neurosurgery resident volunteering at the hospital at the time, said he was floored by the skills and stamina of his peers.

“Ukrainian neurosurgeons are better trained than we are in the U.S.,” he said. “These guys are a little bit younger than me, but they’ve done more craniotomies than I have.”

He credits the work of Dr. Andriy Sirko, the hospital’s chief neurosurgeon, for their extraordinary competence. The chief teaches his pupils, who aren’t required to have the seven years of understudy mandated in the U.S., to be resourceful.

Three surgical team members pose with recognition

The surgical team provided Berlin special recognition for his efforts. (Contributed photo)

Just as in their own training, the doctors had Berlin assist until he gained their confidence. It helped that most of the medical staff spoke English. But even where there were language barriers, it didn’t really matter. Everyone knew the moves.

“In surgery, you almost don’t need a language to communicate,” he said. “Experienced surgeons have a general understanding of what they are trying to accomplish that supersedes minor language barriers.”

Berlin said he learned more from his colleagues during his 17 days in hospital than they learned from him, but he hoped he was able to pass on a few tips in the exchange.

Healing Family History

The doctor found his path to Ukraine through Razom, a nonprofit headquartered in New York City. The group has provided support to the country since the 2014 Russian invasion that led to the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

For Berlin, volunteering was transformative. The work didn’t just heal others; it helped him heal old family wounds.

Berlin is Jewish. One of his grandmothers fled the antisemitic violence in Kyiv during the Russian Revolution. She left as a widow.

The mob activity began on an Easter Sunday.

“Townspeople got drunk and started killing Jews,” he said. “My grandfather was a healer – not a doctor like I am, but somebody who would set bones and treat wounds. He was an upstanding member of his community.”

Close up on active surgery

Berlin takes the lead on a patient. (Contributed photo)

Steadfast in his faith and his identity, his grandfather was an easy target for mob violence.

“They went to his home, and as his final punishment, they killed his sons in front of him. And then they killed him,” he said.

Today, Ukraine has one of the lowest rates of antisemitism among European nations, the doctor noted. He added that he was proud to have met an Israeli who was serving as a soldier and a medic in one of the volunteer brigades.

Berlin brought home a blue and gold trident flag as a memento, which he displays on a wall in his residence. His new Ukrainian friends signed it.

“If I can find it in my heart to go back and see these as people who are worthy and deserving of our help, then I hope other people will follow suit,” he said.

Also, the flag is a reminder: “When I come back home, there’s still more work to do.”

Media Contact

Eric Williamson

University News Senior Associate University Communications