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Indiana doctor returns home after helping care for Ukrainian refugees

Dr. Chris Brandenburg and his medical team treated refugees who couldn't see their own doctors because of the danger.

INDIANAPOLIS — Emergency physician Dr. Chris Brandenburg is back home in Indiana after spending 24 days caring for people in crisis in Ukraine. 

“It seems like such a senseless war,” Brandenburg said. “Being there was heartbreaking and heart-filling at the same time.”

Brandenburg worked with Samaritan's Purse in a field hospital, housed in an underground concrete bunker in Lviv.

He said there were air raids daily, missiles hitting a little over a mile away, along with trauma on a scale the Lafayette ER doctor had never seen in the United States. 

Those he cared for were in crisis: a constant stream of mostly women and children, fleeing a war zone.

"I don't know if there were 50,000 or 100,000, but people and cars, as far as you could see of people to leave Ukraine and to get into Poland,” Brandenburg explained of his initial arrival for the mission. "I think that's when it really hit me of what a humanitarian crisis it was."

His medical team treated refugees who couldn't see their own doctors because of the danger.

“There was a boy having seizures because he couldn’t get his medication. So his mother said he’d been having seizures every 15 minutes. Whether it was heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, people with cancer, they didn't have their regular treatment,” Brandenburg said. 

But there were also battle wounds: civilians shot or bombed, walking for miles for help.

Credit: Dr. Chris Brandenburg

"One guy had a paralyzed arm,” Brandenburg recalled. “I saw a lady who'd been shot in the thigh from like 20 days ago by a Russian soldier and the hospital would say, 'No, you're walking, you're talking, keep going. Go to another hospital we're full.'"

But the most difficult cases, he said, involved invisible injuries on top of the physical. 

He described a woman he treated who came from Mariupol, where 300 people died in an attack on a building marked "children."

RELATED: On sabbatical from IU Health, doctor treats refugees in Ukraine

"She said she was in a theater in Mariupol and she had three kids and was in that theater hiding and it got hit and she lost all three of her children. I was seeing her for a broken foot. And her foot was the least of her worries, you know. But she talked about trying to get her children out and then she realized they were dead,” Brandenburg said. “I have two kids and I can't imagine what she was going through and so being back home, even as I replay that in my mind, it's just — what a horrible humanitarian crisis."

Credit: Dr. Chris Brandenburg

But Brandenburg also witnessed generosity and faith on full display, from volunteers with Samaritan's Purse to Polish nationals offering their homes to house refugees in need. 

He said he’s glad for the experience and may go back this summer, to help again.

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