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War in Ukraine brings medical specialists to Prince George

Iryna and Vasyl Derunets fled their war-torn homeland to find sanctuary in Canada

Back when she was a teen volunteer working at a summer camp for underprivileged children in the Ukraine, Iryna Derunets decided she wanted to be a pediatrician.

The camp needed a doctor to look after the medical needs of the kids, a position left vacant when the mother of her future husband Vasyl died of cancer, years before they knew each other.

Vasyl’s parents taught him the importance of giving back to society with volunteer work and for 15 years he led the kids in activities at the camp, where he met Iryna, who worked in the kitchen every summer until she started medical school in Vinnytsia in central Ukraine.

She left the camp as a dishwasher and returned as a doctor.

“After his mother died, this camp didn’t have any doctors until me, I was the next one,” said Iryna, who arrived in Prince George with her husband on May 24, among a group of close to 200 Ukrainian refugees now living in the city.

Like the rest of the world, Iryna and Vasyl had a hard time believing it when Russian troops crossed the Ukraine border on Feb. 24 to launch their attack.

“It was a terrible feeling because all my family’s there and Iryna’s father is there and all our property is there and we don’t know what will happen,” said Vasyl. “All my friends and my work was there, all my life.”

At the time the invasion began they were in Barcelona, Spain, halfway through a two-week visit with Iryna’s brother and mother. They heard about Prince George through a friend Andrew Kuts, whose brother Ben and his wife Ruth live in the city. They lived for the first two months with Ben and Ruth, who gave them use of a vehicle and introduced them to the Prince George for Ukraine support group which helped them get settled in a small house at Nukko Lake.

Iryna, 30, is an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist who worked at her profession in a clinic in Vinnytsia for five years. She studied at Pirogov National Memorial Medical University in Vinnytsia for six years, then served a two-year internship to earn her credentials.

In Prince George, there is just one ENT doctor (Sergei Filatov) to serve a population of more than 300,000 in the Northern Health region. Vinnytsia, with 365,000 people, has 25 ENT doctors to serve the needs of adult patients and seven ENT pediatricians.

To work as a doctor in Canada, Iryna is required to pass the Medical Council of Canada qualifying exam and the National Assessment Collaboration exam, which is offered just twice a year. She also would have to complete a two-year internship and pass a language test. While she waits to clear those hurdles she’s learning the administrative side of the health care system as a project co-ordinator for the Northern Health Authority.

Vasyl, 35, turned nine years of university studies into a career as a pharmaceutical manager of a private medical clinic in Vinnytsia. His job was to lead a sales team to promote new drugs and treatments and present them to an audience of doctors attending medical conferences he organized around the country. He’s now working construction in Prince George as a commercial renovation labourer.

“I would like to have the same job in Canada but I realize I should go to a big city like Vancouver or Toronto or Edmonton because in Prince George I wouldn’t have such a job,” Vasyl said.

“But right now I’m checking for positions in Northern Health because I like this area, and there are a lot of administrative positions I can fill. Putting a nail in wood is not the job of my dreams but it’s still a good job and the guys have all tried to help us.”

They use social media apps to have daily conversations with family members and friends in Ukraine. Vasyl promised his co-workers he would do whatever he could to send money and medicine back to them as his contribution to the war effort. The Ukrainian government has never made military conscription mandatory and Vasyl says he could never join the army, even if he had remained at his home.

“Our government understands that when you go in the war, you should kill people and I know I couldn’t do that,” he said. “In a war or not in a war, I couldn’t do that ever. I realized if I go in the war, somebody would kill me because I can’t kill anybody. That’s why I decided to help in another way, because I realized I couldn’t do this. Some people realized they could, and I’m happy we have such kind of guys and they defend our country.”

Vasyl says the Russian people are being fed propaganda by their country’s leaders, who continue to control the media, to try to justify the invasion against a country that was part of the Soviet Union until Ukraine gained its independence in 1991.

 “I know friends whose relatives live in Russia and when they asked why your nation is doing this with our nation they told them it’s because we have a lot of Nazis in your country and we will give you freedom,” said Vasyl. “People believe terrible things.

“We have a good government in Ukraine and we live very good before, everything was good in our country and we had a lot of happiness.”

Vinnytsia has been hit with several Russian missile strikes, including a July attack on mostly civilian targets that destroyed the city’s concert house/city hall and left 28 dead, including three children. The city’s TV/communications tower was also destroyed early in the invasion.

Watching from the safety of his new home in Canada, Vasyl has seen the effects of the war and the irreparable damage that’s been done. His work used to involve travel to Odessa, where he discovered the intricate detail that went into buildings in the older part of the city rivalled that of what he saw in Spain.

“The architecture in Odessa is the same as in Barcelona and it’s much older and much more beautiful, but not as popular as all over Europe, but now the bombs destroyed everything and you never can build the same things,” he said. “You couldn’t use the same material that was used 600 or 1,000 years ago. Some of those buildings are gone now and for me it’s very painful.”

The cellular network in Vinytsia still works, but the electrical grid has been damaged by weeks of attacks and cities all over Ukraine are trying to conserve as much power as possible. Throughout the day the power is on for four hours and off for the next four hours, so they have to try to coordinate their internet calls to family and pick times when the power is on.

Vinnytsia has one of the country’s largest military hospitals and injured soldiers are brought there daily from other Ukrainian cities. Vasyl remembers how full the hospital was in February and March 2014 when there was heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine just before Russia annexed Crimea.

Learning English is a priority and once they arrived in Prince George, Iryna and Vasyl began taking lessons through the St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, but those were offered only the morning. With Vasyl working at his construction job and Iryna also working full-time, they’ve had to shift to learning through a software program provided by the Prince George Public Library.

“When we came here we couldn’t even order a coffee in a coffee shop, I couldn’t understand anything,” laughed Vasyl.

Flight arrangements have been made for Vasyl’s parents, two brothers (13 and 14), and nine-year-old sister, who are due to arrive in Prince George on Jan. 12. They’ve found a house to rent close to downtown and are planning a move. Iryna said she can’t convince her parents to leave Vinnytsia.

“They are afraid to live so far from their country,” said Iryna. “Vasyl’s parents are afraid too, but they have children and that’s why they should move.”

Vasyl and Iryna plan to apply for permanent residency and if they can both find ways to resume their professional careers in Prince George they could end up staying here.

“The lakes and the nature, it’s so beautiful,” said Vasyl. “I could never imagine before I came here that trees in a forest can be so close to each other, it looks like a wall. When you hike on Teapot Mountain it’s so beautiful. I don’t think we want to leave this place in the future.

“We have met a lot of good people here. We like this place and we want to start a new life in Canada, but we never give up on the idea to go home.”