Whatever happened to the caring Ukrainian neurologist who didn't let war stop her
Back in March, I spoke with Dr. Aleksandra Shchebet, a Ukrainian neurologist, about the upending of her professional and personal life when the war with Russia began. She and her family fled Kyiv, making their way to Lutsk in northwest Ukraine. Shchebet gave private virtual consultations to patients the best she could, but her ability to intervene was limited. So she found another way to help, spending hours sorting, packing and loading food and medical supplies onto trucks for delivery elsewhere into the country. "I hope the war will end as soon as possible," she told me. Now, more than five months deeper into that war, I checked back with Shchebet.
Shchebet returned to the capital of Kyiv a couple months ago, leaving her family behind in Lutsk. Things had gotten safer there and she missed her city. On the drive back, she passed by burned houses and torched supermarkets — "like wounds on the Earth," she recalls. Soon after arriving, on a Monday or Tuesday, she visited her favorite district, the historic part of the city called Podil. On a weekday, it should have been bustling with traffic and city goers drinking coffee and laughing. "But there was no people at all," she says. "It was empty and kind of apocalyptic feeling."
Elsewhere in the capital, over the last several weeks, people and families have come back. "Now I hear voices of kids who are playing in the yard," Shchebet says, "which means life still goes on." Overall, though, she says Kyiv, this place she once called home, is "not my city anymore." She adds, "Ukraine is not the same anymore, and it never will be." Somehow, Shchebet still can't believe that she's living in a war. "In my head, I still hope it will end soon, like in a dream... and I will wake up." But every day when she does wake up, she returns to this alternate Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Shchebet's neurology practice has gradually filled out. Many of her appointments are virtual. She estimates that half of those clients are Ukrainians who've escaped the country, scattering from China to the United States. But she also sees patients in person at a private clinic two days a week, mostly people who've fled from eastern Ukraine, where the fighting has been intense.
She routinely consults with individuals experiencing chronic headaches and chronic pain stemming from inadequate or absent treatment over the last few months. But Shchebet is also encountering numerous cases of depression, anxiety and PTSD in both children and adults. She draws a direct line between the last several months and her patients' physical and mental ailments. "All my consultations are now about war and what happened during the war and how it affected people," she says.
To drive the point home, Shchebet says that with air raid sirens going off almost every day, it's not uncommon for her to hear the telltale wailing during an in-person appointment. She's grown accustomed to dashing to the shelter with her patient and continuing the consultation from there, "which is not so comfortable," she admits.
Shchebet has expanded her effort to get medications and food from Lutsk and Kyiv to internally-displaced refugees and medical supplies to the hospitals and doctors on the front lines of the war in the east and south of the country. She and her friend created a non-profit charity fund called "Dzhmil," which means bumblebee in Ukrainian. The name comes from the eponymous insect, which is "heavy and ha[s] such short wings. But despite all circumstances, it can fly and... be very helpful. So we decided that we are like little bumblebees in this situation in Ukraine. We have a lot of things to do and to bring to people despite all this stuff, which is going on here in Ukraine."
Her effort to restore the medical functioning of Ukraine was bolstered when Shchebet told her story to NPR in March. She says that some 50 medical professionals from the U.S. and Europe found her through social media and offered to help. Some sent supplies including large packages of antibiotics. Others offered psychological consultations to patients (for which Shchebet served as interpreter) and trainings to Ukrainian psychologists. "It was very helpful," she says, "and I'm beyond grateful."
Shchebet's day to day is a jarring mix of the routine and the extreme, each one bringing the other into sharper relief. "Of course, we are trying to cherish our lives and cherish all those minutes of calm between air raid sirens," she says. That means that she meets friends at the cafe or cinema when it's safe. "But sometimes the whole thing is interrupted with air raid sirens, so you don't know how it ends," she says with a laugh.
Back when we spoke in March, Shchebet says the acute stress was unbearable. But she's amazed at how she and other Ukrainians have grown accustomed to their new reality. "Now I know that people actually are unique creatures," she says. "And they can [get] used to everything."
"We lost our people. We lost our soldiers. We lost a lot of doctors [and] children, unfortunately," she admits. "But we are fighting and I think we're doing great with the support of all the world. And this is unbelievable, actually."
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