Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the recaptured city of Kherson after Russian forces retreated last week, vowing to press on until Kyiv reclaims control of all its occupied territory.
KYIV, Ukraine — In Ukraine, the soldiers call Ann Fournier McClung their Canadian Mama.
Having lost her son in a car accident, she acknowledged becoming something of a mother to the Ukrainian troops fighting the Russian invasion.
“They are a lot younger and like my babies,” McClung said in an interview in Kyiv. “They called me mother. One of them named me ‘Canada Mama.’”
Originally from Gaspé, Que., McClung is a slight woman with a strong personality. She spent 25 years as a combat medic in the Canadian Forces, having served in Cyrus, Haiti and Afghanistan.
She said she struggled in the wake of her Afghan deployment, which she said left her with “moral injuries.”
After leaving the army in 2015, Ukraine was her first volunteer mission. Looking online for a way to help, she joined the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital, which provides medical care on the frontlines.
Her daughter was worried when she left for Ukraine. “She asked me if I am sure that I need to be here?” But McClung was so sure, she returned a second time.
“I had to come back,” she said. “I am older, have a lot of experience, knowledge. My kids were grown up. And that part of me that wants to go and save the world is still strong.”
Working in Bucha after the city was liberated from Russian forces, she conducted assessments of medical needs and disbursed medicine and hygiene products to Ukrainians who had lived under occupation.
“Locals didn’t have insulin or cardio medicine. A lot of people had injuries. A few ladies had broken arms for a few weeks already,” she said. “Some of the people had frozen feet and needed amputation.”
She said she spoke to women who had been raped. One was in her late 20s. “She doesn’t want anyone to know about what happened to her. She has a 10-year-old-daughter. And it’s embarrassing to her.”
Her first trip to Ukraine spanned mid-March through to April. After a rest in Canada, McClung returned to Ukraine in August with a clear mission: to help Ukrainians increase their chances of survival as they faced Russian attacks.
She shared her knowledge with soldiers, prosecutors, police, medics and school children. She directly trained more than 300 people. Several army units asked her to be their medic.
“I know that around 15 per cent of people could survive in Afghanistan if they knew how to survive,” she said. “People here should know their own equipment, how to use tourniquets. Because they have only three minutes after an explosion to save their life and I want to help them with it.”
She estimated that 10 to 15 per cent of the population of the Kharkiv region suffered problems following occupation: Allergy, blood pressure, stomach pain as a result of stress.
“People stayed in line for basic medicine. They didn’t have doctors for six months.”
She showed photos taken in the locations she visited. In all of them, large groups of people could be seen waiting for support.
“I worked with Red Cross, H.U.G.S. Helping Ukraine and The Canada Way (a Canadian non-governmental organization). We tried to deliver humanitarian needs and provide medical treatment at the same time.”
During her break at home, McClung also fundraised for Pirogov hospital. She sold her own production patchwork quilt on her Facebook page and managed to collect $6,000. Half went to the hospital for gas and auto repairs. The rest was for an ECG machine in Odesa hospital.
As a volunteer, she visited hospitals around the country. One of them was at the frontline city of Bakhmut in Donetsk region which has seen significant fighting.
“I have been there in September. Doctors were exhausted. A lot of them were there since February. They need to be rotated. But often part of them don’t want, because they feel responsible and obliged.”
Blood was visible on the wall of the hospital, according to McClung. The doctors were very busy, stabilizing soldiers and civilians. Up to 140 patients need treatment per day if the shelling is strong.
“They are doing miracles with what they have. I worked with NATO countries. We always have the top-of-the-line equipment to be fully functional, even in downtown Baghdad. They don’t have it here, but what they do with what they have, it’s amazing. But they need support.”
McClung returned to Canada this week. Before leaving Kyiv, she said she was looking forward to cooking Ukrainian food for her family, like borsch and her favourite, cheese pancakes called syrniki.
“I missed my long walks in the wood with my German shepherd, my snowmobile, my family,” she said.
But she is already planning her next trip to Ukraine in January. This time, she hopes to bring along her husband, who is also a retired army medic.
“I want to continue what I started. I have a lot of good contacts here. My next mission will be to teach medics,” she said.
She said that whenever she looked into the eyes of soldiers, she saw what they had lived through. She believes she can do more than send money.
“When I am in Ukraine, I make a difference.”
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