'If you're feeling pain, you're still alive'

·3 min read

Jun. 27—In the forests of southeastern Ukraine, Dr. Stephen Donnelly let his arm turn blue to demonstrate that an effective tourniquet is a very, very tight one.

"If you're feeling pain, you're still alive. And if you're still alive, we can get you to safety. And then you get to go home to your family," he said.

In February, when Donnelly heard the news of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, he realized he could use his expertise in emergency medicine to make a difference.

His co-workers at Columbia Memorial Hospital's emergency department covered his shifts so he could join Austere Medical Relief Group, an organization providing combat medical training to Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. He brought a suitcase full of medicine, wound care materials and tourniquets with him from the medical group.

"I just want to help people, and whatever little thing I can do, like teaching a tourniquet is pretty simple but it's so impactful," he said.

First arriving in Ukraine in late May, the Astoria-based doctor joined a team of four medical professionals and an interpreter. One of their first stops was a former children's summer camp turned military base.

"I think the scarier parts were when we were on that first base. When you hear airplanes fly over and they're not on your side — they're Russian airplanes — and you have to go run for cover. That's pretty terrifying. And luckily, we only had to do that twice," he said. "But it's something you have to get used to over time, this feeling of like at any moment, things can happen."

Traveling to different bases, the team ran hands-on drills to teach trauma medicine to Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces. Lessons included tying tourniquets, wound packing and clearing airways.

During his three-week volunteer trip, Donnelly helped teach over 500 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians lifesaving combat medicine.

"Part of my reason for going was to bring (the war) back to people's attention, and also show that everyday people can still do stuff," he said. "Because that's the people I worked with in Ukraine. They're people who were teachers and factory workers and moms and dads who are signing up to go defend their country."

Knowing their time in the country was limited, the group trained people who could go on to teach others. Though Donnelly left Ukraine in mid-June, his work is still making an impact.

Donnelly keeps in touch with the Ukrainians he met while volunteering. He's been studying the language, and plans to volunteer again in September.

"It's been tough, being back, for me. You adjust to the everyday dangers of what it's like to be in an active war zone, and then you come back and you don't have to think about that anymore. And so you're like, 'Well, what do I think about?'" he said. "And so my thoughts are still with them."

"The war is still happening. It's going to probably go on for a long time, and they still need our support," he said.