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An American Heart Surgeon Travels to Kyiv

posted on 2024-06-27, 15:34 authored by Elizabeth Butler

“Get down,” said the colonel, “and turn out your light.” The train was slowing through the dark countryside. I could barely make out a building far across a field in the moonlight. I was not sure what the alarm was about, but I trusted the colonel and so I minded his directions and sat quietly hunched on the bottom bunk of a Soviet style train, peeking out of the corner of a window but drawing the curtain fast. The cold on my cheek felt reassuring, letting me convince myself I wasn’t going to get sick as the train lurched to a stop. In my interview with the colonel, he had made it clear he could get me across the border, but he could not guarantee my safety from a missile strike. A sitting train is a target, a moving train less so. The night does not protect from wayward blasts. Transportation is like lifeblood— it is no coincidence we refer to roads as major arteries. As a cardiothoracic surgeon, I understood the nuance.

The war had been raging for just more than two months. The trains had recently started allowing passage in from the border of Poland. The lines of people fleeing both the Eastern and Western cities were long, but tickets going to Lviv and Kyiv were relatively easy to acquire. During the first days of the war, women and children were huddled in narrow corridors with 15 people to a four-person car, standing room only. I almost felt guilty in my sleeping bunk riding across the Ukrainian countryside. The train started again, only a faint red glow on the horizon, no sounds of explosion as we continued on toward the city.

We arrived in the morning around seven o’clock and checked into our hotel for breakfast. There was no waiting. Our rooms were ready, alongside those of international Red Cross workers and correspondents. The dining room was quiet, with one attendant behind the bar and a few international aid workers at scattered tables. Having arrived early in the morning and wanting to stave off jetlag, I decided to go for a walk.

The streets were barricaded by antitank hedgehogs and few people were out and about. The stores were mostly closed, but still displayed mannequins in last season’s fashions. Boarded candy and souvenir shops were interspersed with travel agencies long since abandoned. Performance posters from the Christmas and New Year’s season five months earlier still hung on the marquee. The street signs had all been spray painted over and there were no maps of the city. No “you are here” at the bus stops. No directions to the center of famous tourist attractions.

There was a slight drizzle in the air, and I was halfway down the street when the air raid siren pierced the calm. The only other people on the street were a couple walking arm in arm, and I was not sure what to do. Did I duck into a portico? Could I find an open shop? Was it better to stand near a tree or a building? The risk, it seemed, was not a direct hit but crumbling mortar, bricks, and steel. I did not see any open doors in which to find shelter, so, foolishly, I kept walking. The sirens kept wailing and I was mostly alone on the street. I passed a few men with looks of boredom here and there as they smoked under awnings. They paid me no notice and I took comfort that this was just another part of life here during the war. The air defense systems were working well, and the people had a calm acceptance, as it had been 10 days since a ballistic missile had penetrated the bubble. Back at the hotel, the lobby had livened with reporters and soldiers milling about.

Arriving in Kyiv, I found that cell phone plans and credit card purchases were not the same as those in the rest of Europe. The Ukrainian defenses had left the cell phone towers operational but heavily monitored. They were using the communication network to track Russian units via social media chats and pictures sent back to Russia via the cellular networks. Many of the towers had been lost, but many still stood. But for an U.S. citizen with a basic Verizon phone, it was not quite communication as usual. Via WiFi, I was able to contact the director of the Amosov Heart Institute, Dr. Kostyantin Rudenko, to let him know I had arrived and was available and ready for whatever was needed. He had been giving a seminar in Lviv that weekend and he would not be back at work until Monday. I told him I was anxious to get to the hospital and help where I could. He connected me with one of his junior associates, Maxime, who agreed to pick me up on Sunday morning and get me acclimated to the hospital.

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