‘Devastating’: The despair of our Ukrainian GPs

Jolyon Attwooll

4/03/2022 4:37:23 PM

As war rages in Eastern Europe, the Ukrainian medical community in Australia is doing its best to offer support.

Warzone in Kharkiv, Ukraine
The world is watching as war engulfs Ukraine, including the intense shelling of Kharkiv, pictured above. (Image: AAP Photos)

For Port Macquarie GPs Dr Andriy Boyko and Dr Tetyana Seppi, the scenes in Ukraine are causing a deeply personal pain.
Both were born in the country now at the centre of the world’s attention and are watching in despair as the streets they played in as children turn into a warzone.
They are among at least seven healthcare professionals with strong Ukrainian links in the NSW coastal town alone, and have close friends and family who can hear the rockets fall.
‘A lot of guilt… helplessness… disbelief,’ is how Dr Boyko describes his feelings as he watches the suburbs of his birth city Kyiv come under fire.
Dr Seppi’s birthplace is around 130 kilometres west of the capital in Zhytomyr, where a military airbase has drawn Russian airstrikes that have reportedly killed people in the area.

‘I’m feeling totally devastated and heartbroken from what I see happening,’ Dr Seppi told newsGP. ‘It almost feels like you’re watching a movie, [but] it is very real.’
Dr Seppi says she recently received a message from a close friend telling her that ‘we survived the night’, a reminder of just how close the threat is for their loved ones.

Her brother, sister-in-law and 13-year-old nephew have had to make the choice between staying in their ninth floor apartment, sleeping in a bomb shelter or fleeing altogether.
Dr Boyko, meanwhile, tells of a family member in eastern Ukraine who has taken refuge in a bomb shelter for several days due to the military onslaught coming from across the border.
Both GPs are steeling themselves to treat patients as best as they can in the circumstances, but they admit it is not easy.
‘I haven’t taken any time off work,’ Dr Seppi said. ‘I try to just stay on the task … and do my best to do 100% for patients, but part of me is in Ukraine.
‘I have my mobile on standby in case there is an emergency call.
‘I’ve got a roof [over] my head. I’ve got safe skies. People in Ukraine are going through hell, so for me going to work and doing my bit, this is nothing compared to what’s happening in Ukraine.’
Dr Boyko is juggling worries about the war in Ukraine with further study, work as a sports and exercise medicine clinician, and parental duties for his daughter, Frankie, who turns two this month.
‘It has such a great effect on you when you actually see the streets where you grew up … and even the playground where I used to play as a warzone,’ he told newsGP.
‘You can’t really explain the effect that has.’
He is trying to find a balance to allow him to cope as a father, husband and health professional.
‘The risk I’m worried about is having enough emotional capacity,’ he said.
‘And that’s where if you become too engaged [with the news], you just lose capacity to function with everything else, so I am quite careful with it.’
The GPs have had different reactions in their respective consulting rooms. Dr Boyko, who emigrated to New Zealand with his parents and brother at the age of 11, says many of his patients are unaware of his heritage, but he has drawn great comfort from friends and family.
‘I have had huge amount of support … I had friends from calling from Europe saying “look, we have rooms, if anyone you know needs accommodation, we are happy to host”,’ he said.
‘People coming out of all walks of lives, close friends of distant colleagues [have been] getting in touch, which has been really fantastic and really appreciated.’
Meanwhile Dr Seppi, who left the Ukraine in her 20s and is married to fellow Ukrainian Dr Vyacheslav Seppi – an anaesthetist – has found the reaction in her consulting room a source of great support.

Dr Tetyana Seppi with her husband, anaesthetist Dr Vyacheslav Seppi. (Supplied)

‘Patients are sending me notes, messages and stuff, giving me lots of hugs, and that gives me strength to still go to work,’ she said.
Drive to help
Despite the personal toll, both GPs are trying to find ways to support their besieged homeland.
‘People are united and reaching out to each other,’ Dr Seppi said. ‘We’re staying connected, helping each other as much as we can.’
Beyond simply lending a listening ear, Dr Seppi tells of a former medical student friend who works in a hospital in her home city.
‘Due to the air strike a couple of days ago, all the hospital windows were shattered so we’re trying to get some help to organise for someone to come and help to fix [them],’ she said.
‘Only three years ago, I was in the same hospital when my mum was sick. Now that’s what is happening there.’
Dr Boyko’s outrage at what is happening in his homeland is spurring him to consider travelling there to help on the ground.
While other members of his family are considering taking up arms, Dr Boyko is looking to put his professional skills to the best possible use.
‘I am personally thinking of going over not necessarily in a fighting capacity, but in a humanitarian capacity,’ he said.
Having been in disaster areas previously – he was caught up in the Nepal earthquake of 2015 – Dr Boyko is conscious that he needs a clear focus for any support he offers.
‘The one thing I do know is if you just go there on your own, you are often a hindrance more than a help, so I want to avoid that situation,’ he said.
‘The options I’m looking at are humanitarian, medical and medical logistics. Those are the paths I’m looking at and it has been difficult to get through to the larger organisations.
‘I’m looking at other options of getting contacts on the ground who I can … be useful to.’
With a young family, he recognises the prospect of travelling to a warzone takes on another dimension – but the prospect of not being able to help is proving difficult to bear.
‘It’s not an easy decision,’ he said. ‘Someone said “Well, what if you get PTSD?” and my response is, “If I don’t go, I will get PTSD”.
‘That’s how I look at it.’
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