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Ketchum Man Offers Assistance in War-Torn Ukraine
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Gary Hoffman found the Ukrainians very friendly towards Americans: “They see us positively because they know we’re backing them.”
   
Thursday, January 5, 2023
 

STORY BY KAREN BOSSICK

PHOTOS BY GARY HOFFMAN

Gary Hoffman had already taken part in medical missions in Rwanda, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Cuba and Mongolia with his wife Connie, a nurse.

And he had been on countless adventures around the world, riding a fold-up bicycle across Europe and sailing a 17-foot Norseboat sailboat 1,130 miles down the Mississippi River in 2007.

 
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A father takes a picture of a sign spelling Kyiv.
 

So, when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the retired Ketchum pediatrician felt those familiar stirrings emerge.

“I decided, Ukraine is fighting our war. They’re fighting Europe’s war.  The world is awakening to the dangers of appeasement all over again, and this is the most important war of the 21st century. I served as a flight surgeon in Vietnam, and I thought if I could go not as part of a medical organization, there was no limit to what I could do,” he said.

After months of research and planning, he went to Ukraine in November where he spent weeks offering medical and language expertise and researching a play that would tell the truth about what he calls “the Russian war of aggression.”

“I’ve already booked a theater to stage the play in New York with eight professional actors. And I plan to give the profits and donations from the play to Ukrainian refugee agencies,” he said. “There already has been an unofficial reading in New York’s Ukrainian village, and I have a translator transcribing the play into Ukrainian for an eventual production at a theater company in Kyiv.”

 
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Dogs are employed to warn about mines and other explosives.
 

With Kyiv’s airports closed, Hoffman flew to Warsaw, Poland, where he and his 45-pound rolling duffle bag and 24-pound backpack boarded a “painfully slow” Russian-era train to Kyiv. Eighteen hours later, he arrived in Kyiv where he took a taxi to a hotel in in the center of the capital city, only to find out the power would be out for the next four hours and nearby grocery shelves were bare.

“No food anywhere at 8 a.m., but I had one energy bar left from the train,” he said.

Hoffman got used to the constant refrain of air raid alerts, as three sirens blared during the first nine hours he was there.

“People on the streets seem to take it in stride and I didn’t see anyone running for shelter,” he said. “My nearest shelter besides the basement of the hotel was the pedestrian underpass at Maiden Square. Although we were in a war zone, I found the situation much more laid back than chaotic, even in areas that had been bombed.”

 
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The bridge leading to the Friendship Arch is currently closed to foot traffic.
 

Upon reaching his room, Hoffman took a flashlight, head lamp, compass, whistle and face covering out of his luggage. He mounted a smoke detector in his room, and he memorized the escape route from his room on the fifth floor down the stairwell and into the basement.

He changed money into Ukrainian hryvnia and tried to get some sleep to make up for the sleep he missed in the curtainless car of the train that shook and rattled along its 500-mile journey.

Hoffman saw one drone used by the Ukrainian militia. He saw six white vans and SUVs with signage indicating they were press. He saw flags planted in Maiden Square to remind passersby of the thousands who have been killed in the Russian assault. And he saw volunteers helping out in various roles.

“The Ukrainians I met and talked to are resilient, united and determined…also not surprisingly angry and unforgiving,” he said. “Putin is truly seen as the anti-Christ. I found the Ukrainians very friendly towards Americans. They see us positively because they know we’re backing them.”

 
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Flags memorialize those killed in the Russian invasion.
 

Hoffman delivered stethoscopes, blood pressure cuffs and other medical supplies he’d taken with him to local hospitals, where he found virtually useless otoscopes and other instruments in use. And he offered consults to doctors at Kyiv’s largest children’s hospital and two other hospitals, sharing techniques that American pediatricians use.

While he had learned the Cyrillic alphabet and a handful of Ukrainian phrases, he found the Ukrainian language more difficult than he had expected. Still, he found a smattering of Ukrainians who spoke English, and people seemed to understand his attempts at Ukrainian.

He was offered three unsolicited offers to go to the frontlines as a combat medic but turned them down because, he said, his lack of knowledge of the Ukrainian language might have endangered him and others.

But he did volunteer for on-call disaster relief at three Kiev hospitals. He helped at a blood bank and started a medical library with medical texts he’d taken with him. And he offered adolescence counseling for those who had reasonable familiarity with the English language at a clinic treating youth with war-related anxiety and PTSD.

Schools were closed because of the war, with some students learning online. But Hoffman offered mini-English classes in one-on-one lessons for students he encountered on the train and in the streets.

He told the Ukrainians he met of U.S. support for their country and offered a donation to the National Philharmonic Orchestra.

The head of the performing arts program at the Ukrainian Institute put him in touch with Kyiv playwrights and producers who could assist with his play. And he discovered a 40-seat black box New Ukraine Theater tucked away in a narrow alley where he watched a two-person play about a couple of friends in a nursing home that reminded him of “The Gin Game” or “The Sunshine Boys.”

“They’re boosting morale, doing four plays in repertory in face of air raids, power outages and internet failures,” he said.

Hoffman found himself enchanted by Kyiv’s “Comfort Town,” a neighborhood of rainbow-colored housing that captured top prize at the 2019 World Architecture Festival. The area, a distinct contrast from Ukraine’s grey Soviet past, boasts 180 LEGO-inspired low-rise apartment buildings built on the site of a former rubber factory.

And he stumbled across what he says is the terribly misnamed 200-foot titanium Friendship Arch, also known as Peace Arch, which the Russians gifted to the Ukrainians 40 years ago on the 60th anniversary of the USSR and the 1500th anniversary of Kyiv’s founding. Some Ukrainians want to tear it down, but Hoffman managed to get past the armed guard at City Hall to offer Kyiv’s City State administrator $10,000 of his own money and that entrusted to him by friends to repaint the arch in the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.

“We could rename it the Ukrainian Freedom Arch, a symbol of Ukrainian determination and resilience, a monument to Ukrainian fortitude and patriotism,” he said. “The Ukrainians—they’re tough people—they’ve been through hell since they declare independent in 1918. They don’t complain—they were raised not to complain.”

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