More than a week after leaving to help deliver three fully equipped ambulances to war-torn Ukraine, a Surrey, B.C., man is now on the ground in Kyiv, helping to build a field hospital and train civilians in first aid.
Chris Ketler, a Canadian Forces veteran and Canada Border Services Agency officer, flew to the U.K. on March 13 with a small team of Canadian and British volunteers, where they collected the ambulances, then drove them to Ukraine.
“We left Bristol and drove through Europe down to Poland. The idea was to take these ambulances fully stocked with medical supplies that were both donated by the Bristol Ambulance Service and purchased with some of the funds (we raised) as well,” he said.
Despite the raging war, Ketler said the team still had to go through a bureaucratic process of getting the vehicles registered to operate in Ukraine at the Polish border.
But he said local officials were “ecstatic” to receive the vehicles and supplies, adding that much of the equipment they’ve received so far has been in poor condition or not fully operational.
Two doctors met the team at the Polish border and immediately took one of the ambulances to help treat people on the front lines, he said.
“They keep sending things like old vans that have been converted to ambulances, but they break down on Day 1 or they don’t make it there at all,” he said.
“So the fact that we brought down three ambulances that you can actually, one, drive and, two, use to respond to calls because we started with all, at least, the basic equipment you would need — defibrillators and ProPacks (medical kits) and blood pressure monitors, everything you need to respond to a normal ambulance call on the street. They’re just over the moon and ecstatic that we’ve managed to get them this kind of equipment that they are in so desperate need of.”
The group has spent the week helping establish a field hospital in a local clinic training students, bus drivers and anyone else they can in battlefield first aid.
“We’re going through your basic trauma: gunshot wounds, amputations, major bleeds, how to save your life, how to use a tourniquet, how to use a bandage. And how to get yourself to safety in that initial moment of injury,” Ketler said.
Jordan Searle, a former British medic who lives and works in Ontario as a paramedic and who helped deliver the ambulances, said the field hospital would “rival any military or civilian emergency department,” just without labs or X-ray or major surgical capability.
In an email to Global News, he said the facility is being staffed by a mix of registered nurses, health-care assistants, a GP, a veterinarian, a dentist and a dental hygienist.
Ketler described the situation on the ground in Kyiv as “surreal,” where people have somehow managed to go about their daily lives despite regular air raid warnings and the sound of artillery in the distance.
He praised the city’s residents as among the most resilient he’s ever met.
“They’re just trying to continue on the way they are while the fighting is raging around them. People are in good spirits. These are some of the most friendly people I’ve ever met in my entire life,” he said.
“Everywhere we’ve gone, it’s incredible to see the willpower, the spirit that still remains that they’re trying to have crushed out of them, and they’re just refusing to give up.”
Ketler, who spent 14 years in the military, including deployment to Afghanistan, stressed that he is in the country on a civilian mission, with no plans of taking up arms against Russian forces.
Despite that, he said he’s cognizant of the risks — particularly given he has seven- and five-year-old sons back home.
“That is, frankly, the one tough thing. I’m not new to putting myself out there and putting myself in dangerous situations, but I mean, my life has changed a little bit since the last time I did that when I was 23,” he said.
“But seeing these people and seeing their resolve and seeing (the) want to survive and the want to fight back and hang on to their home country — it’s hard to describe unless you can sit here and shake their hands and have dinner with them and have them make meals for you, and thank you for coming. It’s worth it.”
Ketler said he has not been in touch with Canadian officials since arriving in Ukraine.
Canada has advised against all travel to the war-torn country, but numerous citizens have made their way there, many to fight with an “international brigade” set up by the Ukrainian government.
Ketler said he’s not sure how long he’ll stay or what the next few weeks will look like.
“Obviously, things are constantly changing, and I know the stories are out there — how things are looking on the ground on the military side of the house,” he said.
“We’re just kind of rolling with the punches right now … it’s anybody’s guess. But what we are doing for sure is the medical training, trying to prep people for the worst.”