'My highest calling': Mont. EMT reflects on trips to war-torn Ukraine region
Cathy Trainor worked at a refugee center shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, where she treated people suffering the mental and physical effects of war
“Oh my god, what the hell am I doing?”
That was one of EMT Cathy Trainor’s first thoughts while on a plane headed to Poland in March 2022, shortly after the Russian army’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Despite her medical background and being a fluent speaker of the local language, impostor syndrome had briefly set in.
“There’s fear and anxiety because you’re going into the unknown and that never feels good,” she remembered feeling, wondering if she could “actually be helpful because everyone I’m going with is a native Russian or Ukrainian speaker and they have a higher level of care they can provide. I was unsure of myself.”
Trainor had only entered the EMS career field in 2017, when she became a volunteer for Big Sky Ski Patrol in Montana and “fell in love” with patient care and helping others.
But as she reflected during the flight, she realized it was almost as if the culmination of the last few years of her life had led her to that specific place in time. While working as a volunteer EMT, she had been spending the last few years traveling back and forth from Russia as part of the science and natural history filmmaking program at Montana State University.
“On a deeper level, I felt really calm about making that decision, because it really felt like it was in my highest calling to be able to go,” she said. “It felt very right, like I was going where I was supposed to be going.”
Traveling with a group of medical professionals as part of the Massachusetts-based Global Disaster Relief Team, Trainor and the team made their way to a refugee center in Przemysl, a Polish city near the Ukraine border, to aid refugees as they flooded out of the country in those early days following Russia’s invasion.
welcoming refugees to poland
One of Trainor’s main responsibilities during her trip was to man a pop-up pharmacy at the refugee center that doled out everything from ibuprofen to blood pressure medication to incoming Ukrainians, many who had arrived with only the clothes on their backs.
“Most of the people that we saw were coming from eastern Ukraine and they were coming from places that had been heavily, heavily bombed,” she said. “They had been on civilian evacuation buses that had been shot at on their way, going through checkpoint after checkpoint.”
As she welcomed people into the center, Trainor remembers being struck by the faces of those crossing the border. “Their eyes looked so empty and hollow and sad,” she said. “It was like collectively everyone had seen a ghost.”
The center was set up to be a one-stop shopping hub, giving Ukrainians the chance to register as refugees, as well as obtain medication, clothes, food, toiletries and other necessities that had been donated from neighboring cities and countries.
“Our medications were all in these different languages – French, Spanish and Polish,” she said. “Sometimes you’d pull something out and be like, ‘I don’t know what the hell this is.’ We’d spend night shifts trying to translate what everything was supposed to be for.”
Most of the medication Trainor supplied was blood pressure medication, as well as medication for minor ailments related to trauma.
“A lot of people had extreme anxiety from what they’d experienced,” she said. “Tons of kids that were puking nonstop because they had motion sickness from being on the buses coupled with the stress, because they didn’t know what was going on. Constipation and diarrhea were also huge issues – all side effects of severe stress.”
Treating mental trauma
While she wasn’t treating complex physical traumas, Trainor did find that her role at the pop-up pharmacy allowed her to help those coming across the border in a different way.
“Sometimes we’d get people that would come [to the pharmacy] and you could tell they really just needed to sit and cry,” she recalled. “I’d say, ‘Why don’t we measure your blood pressure just to take a look?’ To do that, they would sit down in this big, comfy chair and that’s when the tears and stories would start. You could tell people just needed to let that stuff go and you could be there to listen.”
Trainor recalled one night where she and a fellow aid worker went to great lengths to save a family’s pet cat to prevent additional trauma over losing a beloved pet.
“None of us knew anything about veterinary medicine, but we were happy to try and help,” she said. “We’re expecting maybe the cat hurt its foot, but this cat was in severe respiratory distress and was basically about to die.”
Quickly, Trainor called a veterinary friend back in Montana, who walked her through giving the animal several injections. The cat survived the night and was able to travel with its owners to Norway.
“It was about more than just the cat,” she said. “It was really the psychological effect on the family who had already been through so much. We were able to help those people from going through another trauma.”
Trainor also recalls the stories from Ukrainian “grandmothers” – older women who were experiencing life outside their home country for the first time.
“They were such wonderful people, it was heartbreaking to see them going through this situation of having to uproot like this later in life,” she said. “My favorite grandma was named Tatiana. She would come in the middle of the night because she couldn’t sleep. She would come and just tell us stories about her life. She had his incredible sense of humor; I’ll remember her forever.”
After two weeks straight of working at the refugee center, Trainor returned home to Montana in April to finish up her college classes for the semester. In late October, she traveled back to the region with the nonprofit Ukraine Relief Effort, where she worked on an ambulance for a few weeks as part of the war effort.
Even now, Trainor said she is constantly thinking about the plight of Ukrainians and what they’re going through, wishing she could do more.
“It was really meaningful to be of help,” she said. “I think about going back every single day, as I think about these people who are about to have the worst winter ever, and it just tears at my heart every day.”
Despite the emotional and physical pain she witnessed while serving in the region, being able to provide some comfort to those in need, however small, is what makes being an EMT special for Trainor.
“I will be happy for the rest of my life that I discovered EMS when I moved to Montana,” she said. “Suffering people doesn’t make me happy, but what does is the bonding experience you have with other people who care about helping others. That’s what I really love – those times you were able to be there for someone when they were having a really horrible day. That means a lot to me.”
Ambulances and apparatus for Ukraine
A small group is coordinating with the Ukrainian Government to ship ambulances and fire apparatus full of supplies to support Ukrainians, and they need your help