Veterans Voice: RI doctor went to Ukraine asking, 'What can I do to help?'

My neighbor, Michael Siclari, is an ER doctor at the Providence VA Medical Center. Last month, he took 10 days' leave and paid for his own travel to Ukraine to volunteer at an emergency medical clinic.

Siclari will be 71 in December.

“Age is simply not an issue for him,” said his son Peter, who himself graduated from medical school last May. “The fact that he’s 70 doesn’t even occur to him.”

When the invasion started last March, the elder Siclari’s first thought was, “What can I do to help?”

Trying to explain his motivation, he said, “Ukraine is not a Third World nation. Ukrainians lead normal lives in cities like Providence and reside in neighborhoods like ours here in Elmhurst. I just cannot imagine invaders coming to my house on Brentwood Avenue, killing my neighbors and even my family. I had to do something.”

He also sees the geopolitical picture quite clearly. “Putin is an aggressor, just like Hitler was in the 1930s. If we don’t stand up to him we will face the same results as we did with Hitler.”

This meant he needed to stand up to Putin.

“As soon as this war began I searched for anyone who would welcome a trauma doctor as a short-term volunteer.”

He needed to go there, in order to give credibility to his campaign to get others to serve. To him, this is a noble cause.

At least 10 different humanitarian relief agencies were dead ends. “My first choice was Doctors Without Borders,” he said. “But they are looking for long-term commitments, which I could not give.”

Finally, a colleague who was already in Ukraine recommended him to the Folkowisko Foundation in Poland, who called to accept his offer.

Dr. Siclari prepares wounded soldier Liubomwyr Parandii, 23, for evacuation. Parandii was in the Army for three months. Sent to the front after two weeks training, his leg was shattered by an artillery shell burst.
Dr. Siclari prepares wounded soldier Liubomwyr Parandii, 23, for evacuation. Parandii was in the Army for three months. Sent to the front after two weeks training, his leg was shattered by an artillery shell burst.

View from the other side

Aleksandra Widelska is 28, an emergency medical technician completing her nursing studies in Poland. She was a medical director for Folkowisko, and helped coordinate Dr. Siclari’s visit.

She emailed The Journal:

“Doctors are especially needed here in Ukraine, because hospitals are overwhelmed with war casualties and do not have time to see civilian and refugee patients with normal injuries and illnesses.”

Folkowisko Foundation began in 2012 as a promoter of folk and music festivals. It ran a major annual festival close to the Ukrainian border. With their contacts in both countries and their experience managing crowds, they were well positioned to step into the crisis.

Within the first month of the Russian invasion, they were helping refugees and transporting tons of humanitarian aid deep into Ukraine. They also provided modern equipment to several Ukrainian hospitals, including generators and ambulances.

Siclari’s work in Lviv

Michael flew into Warsaw, and changed planes for a flight to Rzeszow, the closest airport to the border. From there he was driven in a Polish ambulance to Lviv in western Ukraine.

Dr. Michael Siclari of Providence, wearing his 2012 Afghanistan headgear.
Dr. Michael Siclari of Providence, wearing his 2012 Afghanistan headgear.

Lviv is the hub through which tens of thousands of people have fled to neighboring Poland after withstanding weeks of strikes in cities such as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol.

Lviv was subjected to some rocket attacks in April and May, but since the Russians pulled back from Kyiv things have been relatively quiet.

The biggest reminder of the war was the thousands of refugees occupying public spaces in the city. Schools are all closed, and most are now home to thousands of Ukrainians displaced by the fighting.

Siclari’s wish was to be in a combat zone, “I am a trauma doctor, after all.”

That proved to be impractical, given the limited time he would be able to serve. So he took on the medical care of refugees living in Stryiskyi Park, a place he likened to Roger Williams Park in Providence.

He had one medical trailer from which to operate. Many of his patients had fled Mariupol. “Their spirit is incredible,” he said. “They are absolutely indomitable, even though most left with just the clothes on their backs.”

Medical trailer at Stryskyi Park in Lviv, where Siclari worked for a week caring for refugees.
Medical trailer at Stryskyi Park in Lviv, where Siclari worked for a week caring for refugees.

Medevacs to Western Europe

Dr. Siclari also participated in the evacuation of battle casualties to other countries.

“The medical stations at the front were busy as hell,” he said. Because the Russians control much of the airspace, road ambulance or train are the preferred means of getting wounded soldiers to the rear.

“Those ambulance convoys need to continue getting the wounded out of the country,” he added with emphasis. “Just as it was absolutely necessary in Afghanistan to get our wounded kids from Bagram to Landstuhl [Military Hospital] in Germany and on to Walter Reed if necessary.”

Wearing another hat, Widelska is a communications specialist for a medical evacuation group in Poland. “We drive patients from Lviv hospitals to airports in Poland, from where they are flown to countries all over Europe,” she said.

“The patients are military and civilian, from all over Ukraine, but they need to be stabilized first in Ukrainian hospitals so they can be transported safely.”

According to the European Union last week, 1,143 Ukrainian patients have been transferred to 18 European countries since March.

Siclari’s 'third act'?

Born December 1951 in New Haven, Conn., Siclari graduated from Holy Cross in 1973. He earned a Masters in Public Health from Yale in 1979, and graduated from Dartmouth Medical School in 1985. He completed his residency at Roger Williams Medical Center and Brown Medical School in June 1988.

He taught at Brown Medical School and has served in the ERs of several major hospitals over the years. He has worked at the Providence VA since 2004.

Mary Gibbons-Whipple is a judge in New Jersey. She met Michael at the start of her freshman year at Holy Cross. He was a senior, and they’ve been close friends ever since.

“Mary has been following this adventure from the start,” said Michael. “I value her opinion, and she is as knowledgeable as anyone about the way I think."

Mary told The Journal, “Michael has a combination of qualities that few others possess to the same magnitude. His innate sense of justice is second to none, and he truly wants to leave the world a better place.”

She continued, “I think this is a continuation of his proverbial ‘third act’. Many of us have lofty goals in our youth, but life — such as careers and families — causes those dreams to be put on hold.

“Often we have to give up, or at least defer, those goals. Michael is the epitome of 70 being the new 50.”

Background as an Army doctor

The trip to Ukraine was not the first age-related challenge he faced. He did not join the military until he was 58, and he needed special permission to be accepted at that age.

“After 9/11, I saw too many young men returning maimed from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “These casualties were my kids’ age. I was a trauma doctor, so why not try to help?”

He was finally accepted in January 2011. He joined the R.I. National Guard medical unit and asked, “When do we deploy?”

When he learned he had no chance to go to a war zone with that unit, he volunteered to join any other unit headed for combat. He was paired up with the 142nd Area Support Medical Company out of Connecticut.

From June to October 2012, he served in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, based out of Bagram. He was assigned to a small combat surgery hospital at Forward Operating Base Salerno. “It was similar to the MASH unit from the old TV show,” said Siclari.

After returning home, he served in the Army Reserve until he was retired two years ago due to his age.

Family is fully supportive

According to Peter, his father’s Ukraine trip “started out as dinner table conversation, and then he became more and more serious.”

The family is 100% on board. Peter, 34, was planning to join his father, but a passport renewal issue squelched that idea.

Michael and his wife Mary Lynn grew up together in West Haven. “They only ever dated each other,” said Peter.

Eldest son Stephen, 40, is a full-time R.I. National Guard officer with the Medical Readiness Detachment

Daughter Kathy, a nurse, “is also ok with this.” Until recently she was a traveling nurse in Arizona and California.

Reflections on his experience

I asked Michael how he felt when it was time to depart Lviv, especially knowing he was only there for such a short time.

“I had an incredible feeling of emptiness,” he replied. “Leaving seemed like turning my back on those people who needed me. I felt guilty. It broke my heart to lock that trailer door when I left.

“At the same time, however, it was far more satisfying than most things I do in my life back home,” he concluded.

“There is no question about it — this war is very real, and the situation is very bad for these people. My concern is that the international community’s outrage may burn itself out as this war drags on.

“That ardor may diminish as people elsewhere get on with their lives. I worry that it’s becoming an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation.”

Son Peter points out that Siclari has already accomplished one goal: he has set an example for other medical professionals to follow.

Michael's work was very much appreciated by EMT Widelska and others in the organizations she serves. She adds, “Civilians and refugees need specialists: cardiologists, oncologists, optometrists, neurologists, etc.”

Thanks to foreign aid, medical supplies have poured into the area; the shortage now is having medical professionals to administer them.

“Having been there, my goal now is to spread the word among my medical colleagues about the need for others to do what I did, and hopefully for a longer period of time,” said Michael.


Thursday, Sept. 15, 4:30- 7:30 p.m.:  Learn to Surf Cast for Free. At Scarborough Beach, Providence Vet Center is teaming up with the Narragansett Surf Casters to offer a class to 15 Service Members/Veterans. All the equipment you need to learn to catch fish from shore, along with instruction, will be provided by members of Narragansett Surf Casters. Please sign up with Justyn Charon by phone at (401) 739-0167 or via email at

Saturday, Sept. 17, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.: R.I. National Guard Resource Fair, Camp Fogarty, East Greenwich. Resources and Connections to help service members and families.

Saturday, Sept. 18, 10 a.m.: the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will host their annual Suicide Prevention Walk at Butler Hospital. If you would like to participate in this free event please register at American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) The Providence Vet Center will be present.

Every Wednesday, 4:30–5:30 p.m.: Yoga Group offered by the Providence Vet Center, 2038 Warwick Ave, Warwick 02889. Come test your flexibility with our Instructors from Shri Yoga. Everything is free. Vet Center Eligibility Required.


Learn to play the acoustic guitar: This Providence Vet Center program is offered through a partnership with Guitars for Veterans. All participants are asked to complete 10 sessions, at the end of which they will be awarded a free acoustic guitar.

The guitar program is very popular and there is a waiting list, so anybody who is interested should sign up sooner rather than later.

Vet Center eligibility required. Call (401) 739-0167 or email

Scuba diving opportunity: Dates and times vary depending on when the group can schedule a meeting. As always, everything is free. If you are scuba certified, and would like to participate, call (401) 739-0167 or email /

(If you are not scuba certified, Providence Vet Center can also help you get qualified.)

To report the outcome of a previous activity, or to add a future event to our calendar, please email the details (including a contact name and phone number/email address) to

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI doctor went to Ukraine asking, 'What can I do to help?'