As war rages between Russia and Ukraine, one Australian is putting her life on the line to rescue special needs children, provide food for recaptured villages and train civilians in combat medics.
Although based in Miami, Florida with her husband and pet dog when not on her way to the next disaster zone, Dr Alison Thompson is an Aussie citizen.
The veteran first responder and paramedic has worked in global hotspots for more than 20 years and manages a team of helpers through her non-profit organisation Third Wave Volunteers.
On September 11, 2001, Dr Thompson rollerbladed into ground zero in New York with a backpack full of medical supplies to give first aid to survivors. It was the moment she decided to be a full-time humanitarian.
Now going back and forth into Ukraine, she has spoken to AAP via Zoom about her latest mission.
“We went in to try to rescue 24 special needs children and orphans on behalf of Exitus and it was complicated,” she says.
“Most of them had feeding tubes and they needed special medicines every two hours.”
Exitus is a US-based non-profit anti-trafficking and anti-exploitation organisation that helps save vulnerable children the world over.
Dr Thompson along with other doctors and nurses has been trying to extract children with special needs and orphans out of Ukraine but it’s a challenging process.
“Usually an extraction can take anywhere between 24 and 48 hours but in many areas, they won’t release the kids,” she says.
The reasons for this are mainly due to Ukrainian authorities requiring more paperwork and the approval of local judges.
Some of the children are also living in Russian-controlled territories so Dr Thompson and her team can’t get in.
“We didn’t have a lot of luck in the beginning but we’ve slowly been trying to get them out and with Exitus, we are mainly focusing on that,” she says.
“Exitus needs more funding for the orphanage they are running in Moldova. It costs $US5500 a month to take care of kid’s clothes, the rent and caretakers and so on.”
An estimated 6000 orphans have been evacuated from the war so far.
However Ukrainian law stipulates they cannot be adopted during war time and so most are left behind in shelters around the country.
“A lot of special needs children couldn’t walk and so were left behind to die with the elderly and they are traumatised,” Dr Thompson says.
“The bombs have been dropping every day for over four months and the animals are also traumatised, so we have been rescuing them as well.”
Along with extracting children with special needs to the borders of neighbouring countries, the volunteer team has carried 50,000 military-style tourniquets into Ukraine bought with donations and in high demand.
Additionally, they began training soldiers and civilian men joining the frontline in bomb shelters on how to stop bleeds and perform CPR.
“We would train them and they would go and train others,” Dr Thompson says.
“It started spreading and then the military was begging us to teach them how to do combat triage.”
Sadly, some of the civilian soldiers the group more recently educated have been killed.
“It’s getting really bad … the Russians are attacking all over,” she says.
“They sent rockets into a beautiful city, Vinnytsia. It’s nowhere near the frontlines; we never know where the bombs will land next.”
Two universities in the southern city of Mykolayiv next to where Dr Thompson and members of her team have been working recently came under siege.
“Something more needs to be done by the world, the Ukrainians are being slaughtered,” she pleads.
“We are pushing on and training 100 new civilian soldiers a week but I feel helpless when I hear another 300 have died on the frontlines.”
It is difficult to independently verify the total number of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians killed since Russia’s invasion in February.
Aside from the difficulty of recording deaths in wartime, both sides avoid releasing sensitive information which could negatively impact morale.
Experts predict the total number of deaths is likely to be much higher than official figures.
Australians wanting to help can send money directly to the Ukrainian people.
“We spend all the money we raise on the ground and we are all volunteers, no one is getting paid,” Dr Thompson says.
“World Central Kitchen are one of my favourite organisations.
“Every disaster Third Wave Volunteers turn up to, they’re right there, they know their stuff and they get the donation food straight to the people. And it tastes amazing.”
In every city, town or village she visits, Dr Thompson says she donates tourniquets and aid kits to military commanders who often end up in tears.
“You can’t imagine how bad a situation is if tourniquets are the number one need.”