I listen as a young Ukrainian widow tearfully describes her situation to the Spanish surgeon sitting across from her. We are in the main hospital in Kiev, the Capital of Ukraine.
It is late September and I am taking part in a medical mission sponsored by Chalice of Mercy.
Over a two-week period, Dr. Santiago Aco Valderrabano (“Santi”) sees scores of patients and performs 27 free surgeries, all for people brought to Kiev from the war zone in eastern Ukraine, where medical care is almost nonexistent.
Santi listens gently to this Ukrainian woman, dressed all in black as she continues to mourn the loss of her husband, a handsome, strapping young soldier killed at the front, his body only recently found and buried. Valentyna translates her Russian into English as the woman tells of her eight-year-old daughter Katerina, who still awaits her father’s return, unable to believe he is gone.
Seeing this mother’s love for her child in the midst of despair, Santi reminds her what she has to live for: “You have a little treasure in your home.” “Ah yes,” she replies, “She wants to be a doctor. I will do everything for her.” The quiet dialogue continues, concluding with Santi’s words, “Now can we think about you? We will help you.”
Santi has come on this medical mission from one of the finest hospitals in Madrid, Spain, bringing with him an anesthesiologist and a nurse. He is an eminent surgeon, a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, and the pioneer of a particular procedure for the repair of a diaphragmatic hernia. But here he finds himself operating in a run-down facility, with antiquated instruments. Several of the operating lights are burned out and a breathing apparatus is patched with tape – but no matter. God has brought him here, and God will guide his hands. All 27 surgeries are successful and, remarkably under the conditions, there are no infections.
Santi was invited to particepate in this medical mission by Valentyna and Fr. Pablo Escrivá de Romaní, a priest from the Archdiocese of Madrid who is now a full-time missionary with Chalice of Mercy. Santi and his wife Fatima were part of a prayer group led by Fr. Pablo at his former parish in Madrid. He had wanted to go on mission for some time, so Fr. Pablo’s invitation to Ukraine met with a rapid yes.
Another person looms large in all of this. He is Dr. Ivan Ivanovich, a Catholic Ukrainian surgeon in charge of the hospital floor where Santi is seeing patients. Ivan is a sturdy, energetic man around 40 years of age. His cheerful disposition is paired with a deep faith that has led him to place his medical practice under the patronage of St. Padre Pio. Fr. Pablo celebrates Mass in Ivan’s office for the team, and a spirit of prayer and Christian love infuses the mission at every step.
I had heard much about the stone-faced disposition of people from the former Soviet Union. But here I am surrounded by smiling faces, even in the midst of so much suffering. As Santi makes his post-operative rounds, he and the rest of the team are smothered with grateful hugs and kisses.
As the Ukraine Medical Mission draws to a close, it is clear that God, the Divine Physician, has had us all in His care, from the woman so grateful at the removal of her massive tumor that she recited a poem to Santi, to the mission team, all drawn deeper into the love of Christ. More than once I have heard Fr. Pablo ask, “Who heals the healers?” as he marvels at their stressful profession. But here we see the answer.
Another chapter has been written in the marvelous story that is Chalice of Mercy. From its beginnings in Chippewa Falls ten years ago, Valentyna has been inspired to make its focus medical. The desperate need in Ukraine for this was a decisive factor, yes. But she, and Fr. Pablo, and all of us who have been involved, understand that this is – must be – holy work, because the body is inseparable from the image of God that is the human person. And so we leave the hospital in Kiev, returning to our homes and workplaces a little tired, but with an inexpressible joy and gratitude that can’t wait to share what we have witnessed, and to see what God has next in store.
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