Ukraine: The Clinic in an Underground Car Park

Volunteer medical centre can provide everything from dressings to surgery.

Katerina Gonzel, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Kyiv with 26 years of experience, recently spent three years working in Yemen, delivering up to 30 babies a day. Back in Kyiv, she runs a private clinic where she is the chief physician. When the fighting started, her staff either enlisted or went to the safer west of Ukraine. Here, Gonzel tells IWPR's Marina Mironenko how she decided to open a medical centre in an underground car park.

My work in Yemen was very extreme; we lived in a country at war. I returned to Ukraine and did not think that I would ever face the consequences of war. But on February 24, we were all awakened by the sound of explosions.

Before the full-scale war broke out in Ukraine, there was a kind of warehouse in the parking lot by my clinic. We have friendly neighbours in our building, so we quickly united and turned this into a medical centre. All its services are free.

We cleaned up the place and I began to contact volunteers and foundations, asking for essential medicines, and the residents of our building also brought their own supplies. My neighbours and I sorted medicines until late at night, laying them out and labelling them. In medicine, everything must be in perfect order.

I call this office the "medical bunker." It was created by me in case the situation in Kyiv became as terrible as that in Mariupol. We go down to the parking lot every time air raids begin and put mattresses down for sleeping places.

Locals who need medical attention come to my bunker. I provide any assistance: injections, drips, bandages. There are places for casualties in the parking lot, with everything ready for operations and for dressing wounds.

I have to remember all my medical knowledge now because I work across all specialties: obstetrician-gynecologist, mammologist, urologist, ENT, ultrasound and much more. Patients come to me from all over the area.

I work in several places already: part-time in a polyclinic nearby, in my private clinic on an appointment basis, and also in my bunker office. I’m also the head of the medical service of the local territorial defence unit.

I also make first-aid kits for soldiers in the medical bunker. I hand them over to the commander and he shares them with soldiers so each fighter has his own kit. Our neighbour Dasha helps me and together we have already made more 1,000 kits. I also shoot video instructions for the first aid kit and send them to the fighters in private messages.

Fighters come to me to have their wounds dressed, rather than the hospital, because it’s simpler and closer. Usually, fighters are operated on in a military hospital, lie there for two days and go home. Soldiers don't want to stay in a military hospital for long periods of time, especially if they can walk. They want to immediately return to the battlefield.

What the fighters told me was horrifying. Almost all of them ask for sedatives or tranquilizers. They told me that the first battle was a real horror, a real test, a shock and a stressful situation.

Not all people will be able to immediately shoot at the enemy, at a person, even though you understand that he is an enemy, that he attacked first, that he is a murderer. It's still extremely difficult to pull the trigger the first time. It’s only easy for murderers in war - the murderer does not care who they kill. But the military are ordinary people who used to live a peaceful life. War takes a heavy impact on the human psyche.

Some time ago I was looking for doctors left in our area. A second year medical intern came to me. He said, “I am looking for my role in life. I want to go to Azov or stay to work with you.”

I looked at him - a young guy, 19 years old, and I didn’t want him to go to war. But two weeks later he called me, “I signed the contract, I’m leaving.” He left to be a frontline paramedic. It hurt to let him go. I sincerely hope he survives.

And as a doctor, and as a person, I am against the war. I think that any issues should be resolved at the negotiating table. War is base, showing the weakness of the one who starts it.

I don’t have that many patients; a state polyclinic works nearby. But I am glad that this medical bunker is not at full capacity. It means that the situation in Kyiv is under control. My phone number is on the door of our medical bunker and if people need it, they call me and I immediately come. I am always contactable, even when I am at other places of work or travel around the city on business.

When we opened a medical center in the parking lot, it calmed many local residents. But at the same time, I realised that I have a big responsibility. Neighbours told me that if I left, they would also be forced to go because they were afraid of being left without medical care. So I realised that I have no right to leave. My 18-year-old daughter left: she made it to the border on her own and is now in Germany, where it is safe.

I have been through emotional experiences, but I try not to show their effect in order to set an example for people to think about the positive. I was afraid to be afraid.

After the war the medical bunker will stay where it is. We will give some medicines to the hospital, and some will remain in the bunker. You never know what can happen in life.

As told to Marina Mironenko.