Luke O’Neill: What really struck me was the hunger, which I wasn’t expecting

TCD professor on his trip by van to provide badly needed medical equipment to Ukraine

A few weeks ago, Professor Luke O'Neill and two friends were sitting in a hotel lobby in Krakow filled with Ukrainian refugees. A nine-year-old boy joined them at the table and drew some pictures. He drew a map of Ukraine and wrote, at the bottom, "Number One Country," and he drew a map of Ireland and wrote, at the bottom, "Friend."

“It was very emotional,” says O’Neill.

O'Neill was there with his friends Dr Brian McManus and Fergal Murphy. They had just driven a large van full of medical equipment from Ireland to Poland on behalf of a group of Ukrainian doctors based in Ireland who run Medical Help Ukraine. The supplies were for Ukrainian doctors working in the war zone.

After Poland, O'Neill and his friend were due to go to Slovakia to see the depot from where Depaul International transports humanitarian supplies into Ukraine. The trip came out of a discussion O'Neill had with his friend Mark McGreevy, managing director of Depaul International, about how O'Neill could use his profile to draw attention to the work being done there. After two years being associated with a pandemic, O'Neill was now associating himself with another crisis. "That's the worry, that whenever I turn up, people get scared that something is going on."

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That night in Krakow, O’Neill and his friends also met their young artist friend’s sister, grandmother and mother, who is a doctor. Currently many of the refugees are middle class people who had the resources to leave, although those resources are dwindling. Aid workers have told O’Neill that they anticipate that the next wave of refugees will be poorer.

“This little family… [The mother] knows it’s going to go on for some time and that they need to find somewhere to live, because she was staying in this hotel. Her children needed schooling, just some kind of stability... I asked about Ireland and she said that that was too far... They’d rather stay closer. If they get the chance to go back, they’d jump on it, but their apartment block has been bombed. Their home was destroyed and they left with two or three suitcases.”

For the Ukrainian doctors, O’Neill and his friends had been given a shopping list that included first aid kits, tourniquets, bandages, anti-burn hydrogels, sterile burns dressings, gauze, cannulas and emergency foil blankets. They had filled the van with the requested items donated by themselves, Irish pharmacies and hospitals, and with medical supplies already collected by Medical Help Ukraine.

'If the hospitals are bombed that means no equipment… One of them told me that all the HIV meds have run out'

“With food and hygiene, Depaul has a campaign to raise money to buy the stuff locally,” O’Neill explains, “but with medical supplies it’s more complicated. You have to ship it in…. There are no meds going in, no insulin, antibiotics…. If the hospitals are bombed that means no equipment… One of them told me that all the HIV meds have run out. And that’s a real danger, because that means the virus can re-erupt. If you’re a patient with any medical condition, your health is in danger, because you can’t get your meds.”

Bleeding disorder

Two of the doctors behind Medical Help Ukraine joined them in Poland. One worked as a paediatrician in Holles Street. “She was intent on getting a child with a severe bleeding disorder out of Ukraine and back to Ireland…. They do this all the time by the way, there might be a child in some city who has a severe disease, and you bring them to another city to provide the treatment…. They’ve already got children out into Crumlin who have childhood leukaemia.

“So there was a child in Kharkiv with a severe bleeding disorder, which she was an expert in. The child was an orphan. So that created problems because, obviously, to get permission was a bit difficult. A lot of paperwork was needed, because there was no parent or guardian there to mind that child. She went to the border and her colleague, who is another Ukrainian doctor, a GP in Tallaght, said to me, ‘I have to stop her crossing the border, because it’s too dangerous.’ I think she went to the border hoping that the paperwork would come in and then she’d travel on. But in the end the paperwork didn’t materialise and they came back into Krakow.”

O'Neill and his friends drove on to Depaul's depot in Bratislava, Slovakia. Depaul is one of the few international aid agencies currently working in Ukraine because they already had a longstanding network of hostels and shelters and staff there. "They realised that their best activity would be supplies. Normally [their focus] is homelessness, but because they had all these connections into Ukraine, they said, 'Let's organise humanitarian aid'…

“We met lots of Depaul workers. Two of them had just come back from the border… And they were telling me about the mayhem... What really struck me was the hunger, which I wasn’t expecting, but all the supply lines are broken into Ukraine. Seven million people are displaced and then four million have got out. The seven million in Ukraine are in huge need, because they have nowhere to live.”

Some of Depaul’s aid workers are coping with their own traumas. Some had lost their own homes. O’Neill was told by one aid worker that homeless people who Depaul formerly helped were now volunteering and helping with refugees. “Every time they go in [to Ukraine], they’re frightened they might get hit because the Russians are targeting these convoys. One of their trucks was taken.”

The Russian army had their own supply shortages and were hijacking supply trucks. “And then the level of human suffering that [the aid workers] are witnessing is huge as well. Talking to them was really sobering.”

'That an army would invade a country in Europe and attack civilians and drop bombs on hospitals, it's stuff from the second World War'

In both Poland and Slovakia, Ukrainian families – always just women and children – were everywhere. Meanwhile, locals in those countries were convinced that Putin wouldn’t be stopping at Ukraine and that they could be next. And yet, normal life continued. People were commuting to work and shops were opening and closing.

“In several countries bordering Ukraine, life is normal, and a couple of hundred kilometres away there are hospitals being bombed… That an army would invade a country in Europe and attack civilians and drop bombs on hospitals, it’s stuff from the second World War… I mean, watching a mother and grandmother and two kids sitting in the lobby of a hotel… Eleven million are displaced from their homes. What have we learned in the past 70 years, really, if this can happen again? Maybe we aren’t as smart as we thought we were.”

Support the Depaul Ukraine Appeal via Depaul.ie or by freephoning 1800 856 113.