Yolanda Wang, Contributing Photographer

In the weeks following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian medical workers alike from the School of Medicine and School of Public Health began to meet.

According to Alla Vash-Margita, a Ukrainian-American and a professor of gynecology at the School of Medicine, she and many of her colleagues were stunned by the war’s outbreak. Hoping to help, they initially began to donate money to international organizations like the Red Cross and Razom

“We couldn’t just sit and watch the news and cry,” Vash-Margita said. However, Vash-Margita and others didn’t know if their donations were making a substantial impact. They had little information on where their money was going and how it was being used. 

Within months, Vash-Margita and other physicians who attended these meetings founded Doctors United for Ukraine, or DU4U, which aims to provide health support to Ukrainians amid the war. Since 2022, DU4U has sent over $1.1 million of medical aid to doctors in Ukraine.

“Here at Yale, we decided to create an NGO that would operate on a smaller scale, but would identify needs in Ukraine from Ukrainian physicians that we are in direct contact with,” Vash-Margita, the Co-President and Director of DU4U, told the News. “And then we would try to match those needs.”

Vash-Margita said that the DU4U physicians have contacts in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, and throughout the rest of the country. She herself contacted her medical school — Uzhgorod State University Medical School, located in Western Ukraine — and other physicians working in Ukraine closer to the front lines. 

For Vash–Margita, the DU4U physicians’ personal connections have helped create a network of hospitals and doctors, and they can identify the direct needs at specific hospitals. 

“There’s an advantage for most of us,” Vash-Margita said. “We speak Ukrainian or Russian if we need to. We can pick up the phone and call doctors in Ukraine, which we do all the time.” 

Rather than trying to provide supplies for the entirety of Ukraine, DU4U tries to fill in the gaps and provide supplementary resources to an existing network of physicians.

According to Nathaniel Raymond, the executive director of the Humanitarian Research Lab at the School of Public Health, this is exactly what a country like Ukraine needs. He noted that because Ukraine already had a high standard of care prior to the full-scale invasion, it did not need a full overhaul of its healthcare system.

“In many cases, groups like Doctors Without Borders and World Health Organization offer to come in because there is no pre-existing health care system or that health care system has been fully destroyed,” Raymond said.

According to Andrey Zinchuk,  a professor at the School of Medicine and the vice president and director of DU4U, the nonprofit has three major branches, each with distinct goals. 

The first branch, Zinchuk said, seeks to supply targeted precision aid, which includes ventilators, breathing machines, heart valves and kidney devices. DU4U purchased these devices and coordinated their dispersal to various hospitals across Ukraine, including the five major regions of military hospitals. 

Vash-Margita noted that, in one instance, this division provided aid to maternity hospitals in Odessa, Ukraine. After hearing reports of women undergoing preterm labor due to stress and inadequate nutrition, DU4U purchased tocolytics, a type of drug that slows or suppresses preterm labor, and sent it to the maternity hospitals.

The second branch helps support mental health providers. For Raymond, it is difficult to transplant mental health workers into other areas, due to language barriers and cultural differences.

“You can bring in heart surgeons or burn specialists from anywhere, and they can operate in multiple contexts intraoperatively,” Raymond said. “However, bringing in outside mental health specialists often can cause more harm than good.” 

He also noted that many specialists aren’t properly trained to treat trauma-victims.

“Even if you have local capacity to be able to provide large scale mental health interventions, it does not mean that that local capacity is trained to do it with a population that is now conflict affected,” Raymond said.  

In response, DU4U has worked to train mental health providers in Ukraine on how to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.  

In one instance, Shelley Amen and Ilan Harpaz-Rotem, both Yale psychiatrists who work at Veterans Affairs, traveled to Ukraine and conducted training sessions for Ukrainian psychologists and psychiatrists on how to treat PTSD.

Raymond said that DU4U also supported social works and psychologists through Christian Medical Association Ukraine to provide care for 200 displaced families. By working with existing humanitarian organizations, such as Unbroken and Superhumans, DU4U continues to help those impacted by the war.

“We trained 24 of the psychologists in Warsaw, Poland, a year ago, and then in the fall, we had a trip back again to Unbroken and Superhumans, where we trained psychologists in acute mental trauma and PTSD care,” Zinchuk said. 

The third and final branch  provides skills and exchanges ideas with Ukrainian physicians. 

In 2023, a sponsorship from the Yale MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies brought three Intensive Care Unit  doctors and three obstetrician gynecologists  to Yale to train for a month. Zinchuk said that D4U4 is planning on inviting ten more physicians to train at Yale this summer.   

Still, Zinchuk said that running the organization has not been easy. He noted that as the war has persisted, donations to DU4U have steadily decreased. 

“Initially, finances were not as much of an issue, because in the beginning of the war people were shocked and opened their resources to share with us, so, we were able to raise a lot of money very quickly,” Zinchuk said. “[However], as [the war] loses attention in the world, there’s a downtrend of donations. That’s probably been a key challenge for us.”

Nevertheless, Vash-Margita emphasized the importance of DU4U’s work and its overall impact. 

“We cannot save the entirety of Ukraine. We hope, we wish, we could,” Vash-Margita said. “But these small sorts of targeted projects allow us to fulfill their needs and our goals.”

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, 2022.