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Mission of mercy: Shelter Island healthcare professional  going to Ukraine

It’s going to be a long trip. First, a 4,296-mile flight from New York to Krakow, Poland, 10 hours in the air. On the ground, medical supplies will be loaded on a train for a three-hour trip to Kyiv, Ukraine, and then a 12-hour rail trip to the Donetsk region.

“Twelve hours, more or less,” said Physician Assistant John Reilly, an Islander planning to make the journey on March 4. “More or less, because it could be a lot longer — transportation can be a mess over there.” A mess as in traveling through a country where the largest war in Europe since the 1940s is being fought.

Mr. Reilly, who works in Bridgehampton’s GoHealth Urgent Care Clinic, part of the Northwell system, has volunteered his time to bring vitally needed medical supplies to Ukraine, which this month continues a two-year battle for its national sovereignty after the Russian invasion.

The trip is sponsored by a Kansas-based nonprofit, Global Care Force, which sends supplies and personnel to Ukraine, where hospitals are under-staffed and supplies are at a crisis stage. Global Care Force was started in 2020 as COVID Care Force, and was supported by more than 1,500 volunteers and a large network of donors. A year later the group became Global Care Force, to bring aid to beleaguered hospitals around the world.

“We’ll bring in antibiotics, insulin, diabetes and hypertension medications,” Mr. Reilly said, along with other lifesaving medicines. “Medical care there can be ragged because of the war, so we’ll do what we can.”

As the war continues to grind on, civilians are suffering at an alarming rate. A United Nations Report in January stated: “The past weeks saw a steep increase in civilian casualties as the Russian Federation intensified missile and drone attacks across Ukraine … In the course of just 10 days, between 29 December 2023 and 8 January, hundreds of civilians were killed or wounded in drone and missile attacks across the country …”

A coalition of human rights organizations reported that within the first year of the war, “More than 700 attacks on hospitals, health workers, and other medical infrastructure in Ukraine have been reported …” From Feb. 24 to Dec. 31, 2022, the report found “there were 292 attacks that damaged or destroyed 218 hospitals and clinics, 181 attacks on other health infrastructure (such as pharmacies, blood centers, and dental clinics) and 65 attacks on ambulances. There were also 86 attacks on healthcare workers, with 62 killed and 52 injured.”

As a healthcare professional, Mr. Reilly’s training and long experience is in trauma and emergency medicine. He’s looking forward, he said, to lending a hand, using his skills to help Ukrainians trying to survive with a lack of supplies and personnel at a breaking point.

“It’s an incredible honor for me to help others,” he said. “With the dire circumstances in Ukraine right now, I’ve been saying somebody should do something to help, and it occurred to me, in a small part, that somebody could be me.”

He’s seeking donations — the trip has already generated $6,825, but more is needed. To donate, go to the website //globalcareforce.managedmissions.com/MyTrip/johnreilly1. Donating to help those suffering in Ukraine is different from the usual donations to medical centers here, Mr. Reilly said. “We live in one of the wealthiest parts of the world, and charity is usually done through big benefits. This isn’t a benefit. These are people over there who can’t get medications that will help them exist. This is life and death.”

Mr. Reilly is no stranger to working through a crisis to bring help and comfort to patients. He worked during 2020 at the national epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic at the Queens Hospital Center in Jamaica. In the early months of that year, walking into the hospital in the morning, the stench was an assault.

“The smell of feces, urine and vomit,” he remembered. “And the smell of death.” There were non-stop, hour-after-hour, 12-hour-and-more work days, a constant drumbeat of caring for the severely ill, working with a team to save them, in departments that normally should have had beds for 48 people having 160 to 200 people.

There were moments when the experience on the front line of the pandemic hit especially hard, Mr. Reilly said. “During one shift I went to my locker for a minute to get a bottle of water,” he remembered, and saw activity near a doorway at the end of the room. “There were five guys, orderlies, with lots of large orange bags,” he said. “Loading bodies into a truck.”

He described the calm, orderly and efficient manner his teams at the hospital demonstrated in the midst of the crisis, and as a professional plans to bring that to his journey to Ukraine.

He’s been briefed, he said, that while in Ukraine he’ll most likely be 20 miles from the front lines, and will hear and see missiles and drones.

His mission to Ukraine has been a long time coming, he said, describing how in February 2022 he was attending the gradation of his son Justin from U.S. Navy Officer Training School in Newport. “It struck me,” Mr. Reilly said, “learning about Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine on television, at the same time my son was graduating as a Navy officer.”

He was in recovery from a shoulder operation then, but now is fit for the long trip overseas, and prepared to help make a difference.

To donate, again, go to //globalcareforce.managedmissions.com/MyTrip/johnreilly1.