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U of M med student reflects on 2 months behind the front lines in Ukraine

a group of soldiers pose with the Ukrainian flag
3rd Assault Brigade in Ukraine.
Courtesy of Sergey Karachenets

Twenty-four-year-old Sergey Karachenets had no military experience but wanted to give back to the country where he was born: Ukraine.

The University of Minnesota medical student and EMT has spent the last two months behind the front lines as a combat medic. Karachenets arrives back in the state Thursday to prepare for his fall classes.

It was his third trip to Eastern Europe during the war; his first two were to help refugees in Poland. Most recently, Sergey worked alongside the group Road to Relief to directly help soldiers injured in the fight against Russian aggression.

He said that he couldn’t think of anything better to do than volunteer between his first and second years of medical school, but didn’t know what to expect upon arriving.

“[A] typical [day] didn't really exist,” Karachenets said.

He mostly worked as part of a three-person team, helping with medical evacuations of soldiers in the Bakhmut area. Soldiers they transported had only basic field care, like bandages or a tourniquet, before Karachenets’ brigade stepped in. From there, the medics took the injured to a casualty collection point, similar to an emergency room in the U.S.

In his downtime, Karachenets said he met some American doctors with an organization called Medi Corps. They went into recently liberated villages to aid civilians long deprived of care.

“The situation was pretty bleak. There were people who hadn't seen a doctor for two, three years,” Karachenets said. “And so when we came and established the clinic in a village of 500 people, we probably saw at least half of them.”

The most common complaints were blood pressure concerns and hypertension. He and the other doctors helped provide five-to-six months of medication when possible, and some temporary relief.

“It’s not a solution, it’s a Band-Aid,” Karachenets said.

His first day in Bakhmut was a bit of a shock. Immediately, the medics were doing artillery drills and learning what to listen for from both the ground and the air.

“It reminded me of a scene from the movie ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’”, Karachenets said. “The battlefield looks a little bit different than what we might imagine. There are trenches, and there are sort of pockets of fighting, but most of it is happening in the air… It's weird, just how quickly you get used to these things.”

The difference between Karachenets’ experience as a firefighter EMT and combat medic was stark.

“In the U.S., the most trauma we'd see on an ambulance would maybe be a car crash or some elderly person that fell and we have some head injury. Here, we're getting the whole spectrum of penetrating trauma, blunt trauma, explosive trauma, amputations,” he said. “I got a very large amount of experience very quickly.”

While there, Karachenets interviewed some of his comrades. He found that almost all had no medical or military experience prior to the war.

“They felt like this was where they belonged. It’s the country that they live in,” Karachenets said. “For me, it's my homeland. I was able to give what I could.”

Many more medics and doctors from around the world who came to help had no connections to Ukraine either, Karachenets said.

Another surprise: The lack of supplies, body armor, ambulance fleet maintenance and living quarters provided by the Ukrainian government — meaning it was up to donations, volunteers, or their own wallets to fill the gaps.

Karachenets said soldiers he worked with are grateful for aid from the West, but that more is necessary, as what they have is not enough to win right now.

The young doctor-in-training said support from friends and family back in Minnesota helped him deal with the emotional weight of his harrowing experiences in Ukraine.

“Another part of it — this is just my personality. When I find myself busy from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep that just doesn't leave too much time to spend thinking about it,” Karachenets said. “I thrive in this sort of high-stress, high-moving environment.”

And yes, in between semesters of medical school, Karachenets plans to return to Ukraine.

“Even if the war ends tomorrow, there's going to be so much work here. There are going to be so many areas that have been left without medical care,” he said. “I'll definitely be back.”

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