‘My roots were in Ukraine’: N.Y. doctor delivers ambulances, supplies

The donated satellite phones, medications, supplies and ambulances will go to first responders and medical centers


James T. Mulder
syracuse.com

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — When Dr. Gennady Bratslavsky of Upstate Medical University visited Ukraine two weeks ago, he was amazed by how the war in Ukraine has changed the life of a friend he grew up with in Kyiv.

His friend, Alexandr Rohovyy, is a pediatric orthopedic trauma surgeon.

By day that friend wears surgical scrubs and a white coat as he cares for kids in a children’s hospital in Kyiv.

But in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, that pediatrician now dons a ski hat at night and patrols the streets of his neighborhood, toting a rifle.

“It’s remarkable to see the transformation of someone so educated, sincere and peace-loving,” Bratslavsky said. “But this is what he needs to do now.”

Bratslavsky, 48, a surgeon and chair of urology at Upstate, reunited with his friend during a whirlwind and sometimes hair-raising trip to Ukraine to deliver medical supplies. Some of those donations ended up at a hospital where Bratslavsky once worked as a nursing student in his teens.

Bratslavsky, who immigrated from Ukraine 30 years ago, and Alex Golubenko, another childhood friend from Ukraine who now lives in New York City, have been raising money to provide medical supplies to Ukraine since the Russian invasion began Feb. 24. They set up a website, Help Free Ukraine, to solicit donations.

Bratslavsky’s wife, Katya, an artist, also is supporting the cause by selling her paintings. She is donating all the proceeds to the Ukrainian medical relief effort. As of last week, she had raised nearly $200,000 from her art sales, Bratslavsky said.

One of her paintings raised $10,000 last weekend at the Jim and Juli Boeheim Basket Ball Gala.

Even though Bratslavsky came to the United States 30 years ago, he’s stayed in touch with his friends there. Most years, they have a reunion somewhere in the world. On the day of the invasion, he and his friends were together in France, absorbing the news together.

Two months later, Bratslavsky was headed to Ukraine himself after he and a friend donated and raised about $250,000 toward medical needs there.

His journey started on April 18, when he flew to Poland with 35 large plastic duffle bags filled with first aid kits and gas masks. The next day he made a 20-hour drive in an ambulance loaded with the bags to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine that had just been hit by Russian rockets that killed and injured civilians.

“It did not give me a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that I had to drive there,” Bratslavsky said. “And yet knowing that people in hospitals were depending on me I didn’t think I had much of a choice.’’

So far Bratslavsky and Golubenko have spent the thousands raised on supplies.

They have sent satellite phones so Ukrainian first responders can communicate in areas where there is no cellular or internet service.

They have shipped a truckload of donated medications and supplies Bratslavsky collected from Upstate, Crouse Hospital, Auburn Community Hospital, Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca and Mohawk Valley Health System in Utica.

They also worked with two nonprofits in New York City to help ship 144,000 pounds of medications donated by a pharmaceutical company.

Bratslavsky used some of the $250,000 they raised to buy two used ambulances in Poland.

One of the vehicles was requested by a cancer center in Lviv. The center needed the ambulance because it has been flooded with patients fleeing from other parts of Ukraine, Bratslavsky said.

The other ambulance was for the children’s hospital in Kyiv where Bratslavsky’s friend, Rohovyy, practices. When they were in their teens, Bratslavky and Rohovyy worked in that same hospital as nursing students.

Bratslavsky and another volunteer drove the two ambulances to Lviv.

Driving the ambulance from Poland to Lviv took Bratslavsky 20 hours because of delays going through customs and numerous military checkpoints.

They were never shot at, he said. Though it took nearly a day, they made it safely through each checkpoint.

Once there, he stayed overnight in a hotel in downtown Lviv but had trouble falling asleep because of the incessant sound of air raid sirens. “I didn’t know if something was going to come through the window,” he said.

His childhood friend, Rohovyy, traveled to Lviv to pick up one of the ambulances and drive it back to Kyiv.

The invasion has upended life for Rohovyy and his family. In the days after the invasion, the pediatrician’s wife, three children and 8-day-old grandchild fled to Bratislava, Slovakia.

Now, Bratslavsky is trying to get that family visas so they can come stay in Fayetteville.

The war in Ukraine also has transformed Bratslavsky and his feelings about his native country.

“It turned my world upside down,” he said. “I had not realized how deep my roots were in Ukraine and how much I loved the land that brought me up.”

He and his parents came to the United States in 1992 when he was 19. They spoke no English and settled in Albany because Bratslavsky’s uncle lived there.

Bratslavsky attended community college, Sienna College and then Albany Medical College. He became a U.S. citizen.

Back in Ukraine, decades ago, Bratslavsky and his family identified themselves as Jewish. The government made them, he said, even though they were all born in Ukraine. That was a legacy of antisemitism pervasive in Ukraine when it was part of the former Soviet Union.

But things have changed. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, elected by a landslide in 2019, is Jewish and has become a national hero since the invasion.

When patients here in Syracuse asked Bratslavsky if he was Ukrainian, he used to say, “No. I’m a Jew from Ukraine.”

Since the invasion, he answers that question differently.

“Yes,” he tells people. He is Ukrainian.

“It’s one country and one people,” he said.

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