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Local Red Cross volunteer is eyewitness to unbroken Ukrainian spirit

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Cathy Dobson 

The third night that Sarnia nurse Bonnie Kearns was volunteering in Ukraine, an alarm sounded at 3 a.m.

“Attention: Air Raid Alert. Proceed to the nearest shelter,” she heard over a loudspeaker.

Kearns, a veteran Canadian Red Cross volunteer, rushed to an underground parking lot and waited by a cement barrier. She learned later that an unnamed facility was damaged by shelling but her building was intact.

She felt more prepared the second time she heard an air raid alert, Kearns told about 60 members of the Sarnia-Lambton Kiwanis Golden K club Tuesday.  

“I had a mat from the exercise room; I had bananas; I had water and made a little nest for myself by the elevator, so I was just fine and slept for four hours,” she said.

She’s learned that kind of resiliency over the course of 30 deployments to disasters around the globe.

Assignments in the past 39 years have required Kearns to man a 9/11 first aid station at Ground Zero, assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, set up field hospitals and tend to victims of numerous earthquakes in places like Haiti and Pakistan, nurse the sick through cholera outbreaks, and work in war torn Afghanistan for six months. 

In 2011, Kearns was awarded the Red Cross’ highest honour, the Order of the Red Cross, Member Level, which recognized her outstanding humanitarian service.

Bonnie Kearns receiving thanks from Golden K member Murray Bouchette after describing her recent deployment to Ukraine, Tuesday. (Cathy Dobson photo)

Three months ago, at age 77, she thought she had aged out of the Red Cross’ international program. But the rules changed and a call came to deploy to Ukraine as a capacity builder. Her expertise was needed to determine how the Red Cross can help and if medical training is needed.

Kearns spent three weeks at the Lviv hospital, a modern 1,600-bed facility that she said was well-staffed.

The city of Lviv is about 43 kilometres from the Polish border and has been inundated with displaced men, women and children since the start of the war. Previously, Lviv had a population of 800,000, said Kearns. Now 3.5 million live there, many in refugee camps.

Three times a week, the so-called trauma train arrives from the frontline in the east loaded with the wounded to be treated in what is considered a safer zone. 

“Over 2,000 children have been brought to the hospital by the trauma train,” Kearns said.

Many of the wounded require prosthetics. Those who need bionic hands will have a lengthy wait because the cost for each is $45,000, she said. Those who need prosthetic legs receive them from Germany and may not wait as long.

“There are so many amputations, both military and civilian,” Kearns said. “But I learned they call it the unbroken. They say some bodies are broken. Some hearts are broken.

“But the Ukraine spirit will never be broken.”

Kearns said she loves her Red Cross work and will agree to another deployment if it’s offered before she turns 80, the age when the organization cuts ties. 

“It’s exciting, boring, scary, rewarding, heartbreaking, frustrating, tiring, and wonderful. It’s all about doing what you love and following your dreams,” she said.

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