A team of medics in North East England are hand-assembling individual first aid kits for distribution on the Ukranian frontline, in answer to a direct request for 250,000 such kits from frontline field hospitals.
To date, a remarkable 3500 kgs of medical equipment, including first aid kits, tourniquets, laryngeal mask airways (LMA), hospital beds, haemostatic gauze, and even four ambulances, have arrived in Ukraine from the NHS in the North East of England.
But individual first aid kits are laboriously hand-assembled by volunteers and, so far, only 100 have been sent.
The effort is led by Medical Aid Ukraine, an organisation set up in the North East of England, but that quickly spread "via social media and human kindness" into a national movement, says Vladyslav Vovk, MBBS, who started the initiative. The 26-year-old foundation-year doctor from North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Trust, was born and raised in Ukraine and wanted to do something to help.
"We are in touch with doctors in Ukraine, and once we know what they need we go to NHS Trust managers, procurement heads, and medical supplies companies and ask what surplus they have and can provide," Vovk told Medscape UK.
Most NHS Trusts in the North East of England are involved in some capacity, with North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Trust one of the largest contributors. Ambulances have been donated by the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS). Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust is also heavily involved with logistics.
Other materials sent to the frontline largely include surgical instruments, mobile monitoring equipment, and other medical hardware, ultrasound machines, and defibrillators. Hospital beds have been sent as well, with 20 from NHS Trusts in North Tees and South Tees.
Vovk says everyone has pulled out all the stops to make this happen: "North Tees sent off 24 pallets last week. There’s also been lots more from Newcastle too."
"In the past week, as well as 3500 kgs of medical equipment, we sent four ambulances from NEAS, which were packed full of medical equipment to help those on the frontline – we just gave them the keys."
Crucial to success are the open lines of communication with medical aiders on the ground in the conflict zone. "Specifically, right now we’ve heard that the medics on the frontline need 250,000 first aid kits. We’re getting through them but nowhere near in the numbers needed," he stresses.
Vovk and the 800 volunteers pack the individual first aid kits themselves. "The kits don’t arrive pre-packed, so we are having to assemble all of them by hand, an arduous task especially in the short time that we have had all of this up and running," says Vovk.
Equipment in the kits include haemostatic gauze, tourniquets, bandage scissors, airways. Routine healthcare supplies such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitary equipment are also all being sourced and sent over to the war zone.
Journey from Polish-Ukranian Border to the Frontline
The ambulances and pallets go to a warehouse on the Polish-Ukranian border and from there the supplies are distributed to the largest city in Western Ukraine, Lviv. It is the journey from here to the frontline where the most significant challenges start.
"The challenge right now is getting supplies from Lviv across Ukraine to where it is mostly needed. Mariupol, for example, is surrounded so we can’t get supplies in there. Also, the Russian military have been targeting civilians, supply crews, ambulances making it incredibly risky," says Vovk.
"We're working on different connections and routes to get these supplies out to avoid these bottlenecks." However, he adds, "the more routes we have, the more exposed people [distributors] are to enemy fire. There are also difficulties when not using established routes due to a lack of infrastructure."
A particular issue is that the military-run field hospitals are under supplied, according to Vovk. "One of the main reasons for doing this is because the field hospitals are military set-ups, despite the fact that many civilians are being treated there, and my understanding is that the Red Cross is reluctant to supply them."
Since the conflict began, the Ukrainian Red Cross has distributed 400 tonnes of aid, including food, bedding, blankets, tents, water, and hygiene items across the country. Another 350 tonnes of aid arrived in Ukraine in recent days, including 200 tonnes from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with war-wounded kits, tarpaulins, water, and sanitation supplies.
Sam Smith, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told Medscape UK that the ICRC is urgently scaling-up their response, deploying medical workers, weapon contamination specialists, engineers, logisticians, and others to the region who can make an immediate difference.
"This is an extremely dangerous time for families caught in the fighting and an extremely dangerous time for aid organizations, too," says Smith, adding that "as a neutral humanitarian organization, the ICRC provides medical supplies wherever the needs are greatest in Ukraine. Anyone wounded in combat, whether combatants or civilians, are entitled to protection and assistance."
He adds that they have recently donated medical supplies to hospitals in Kyiv, Donetsk, Mariupol, and Odessa. "We are sending medical supplies to care for trauma injuries to hospitals in Dnipro and Zaporizhia, as well as relief supplies for displaced families."
Best Use of Crisis Medical Assistance – UK or Ukraine?
Vovk comes from a family of doctors and hopes to specialise as a GP in the near future. He moved from Ukraine to Bradford with his parents when he was 9 years old. Until recently when they were forced to flee, much of his family still lived there. "I feel a strong sense of connection to the place where I grew up. Watching everything evolve around the Russian invasion was very emotional at first, it was difficult to absorb what was happening. My initial instinct was to go out and fight on the front lines."
His cousin, Anna, is a paediatric oncologist in Kyiv and she helped coordinate the transfer of her child cancer patients to hospitals elsewhere in Europe and the UK recently. She has temporarily left Kyiv for Western Ukraine with another group of paediatric cancer patients, but, according to Vovk, Anna is facing a tough decision about whether to return to Kyiv, considering the extreme threat the city faces from the Russian invasion.
"She is tempted to go back to Kiev, but as her family, we try to stress to her how important her work is for the long-term as well as the short-term," Vovk says. "Anna is reluctant to leave Kyiv and Ukraine because she has a strong sense of duty to her patients and her country."
Vlad empathises with his cousin, recalling that his initial instinct was also to defend his homeland. "I wanted to go out there and fight on the front lines," he admits, but explains how his father sat him down and told him to consider the long game and the humanitarian crisis that will undoubtedly emerge over time. "After that, I decided to focus on helping in the best way I can here in the UK, using my connections as a doctor in North Tees and Hartlepool."
"I wanted to do the best I could in getting medical equipment sorted. The main issue was that I didn't have any storage or logistics help. Plus, beyond my own medical knowledge, I really didn’t know what would be needed on the frontline, so I managed to gather a team with connections."
"Tough times always open up channels of communication between lost and forgotten friends because everyone wants to catch up in case anything bad happens in the future."
At around the same time, Vovk came across a Facebook post about Medical Aid Ukraine and his plan started to take shape.
Medical Aid Ukraine, North East
Medical Aid Ukraine in the North East has five leads including logistics, procurement, media and volunteering. Most of the team are doctors or nurse practitioners; two have connections with Ukraine.
Vovk has around 800 volunteers to help with sorting, packing, and driving equipment, which is essential given they are packing the individual first aid kits by hand. There are similar groups elsewhere in the UK and Ireland, also providing medical aid to the Ukraine, but the one in North East has so far been the most successful.
Vovk explains that they cannot transport medications because it seems to be "a legal black hole. The UK's MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] cannot approve shipments of medications."
"Right now, they need trauma gear and first aid kits, including haemostatic gauze, combat application Tourniquets, laryngeal mask airways, and bandages," says Vovk.
The group have also had requests for surgical equipment, including sutures, scalpels, theatre lights, and tables to set up field hospitals. "We also need more expensive items, including harmonics, diathermy blocks that are very useful because these can be set up nearly anywhere and stop most bleeding."
Medical Aid Ukraine, North East can be contacted via their website https://medicalaidukraine.co.uk/ and Medical Aid Ukraine - North East Facebook. Donations from an NHS Trust, GP, dentist, pharmacy, private clinic, or medical supplier are asked to contact the organisation to organise collection/delivery.
Lead Image: Medical Aid Ukraine
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Cite this: Becky McCall. UK Medics Work to Send Urgently Needed Supplies to Ukraine - Medscape - Mar 25, 2022.