World

'I'm not afraid to die': Kiwi doctor on the frontline in Ukraine

Nicholas Jones
By
Nicholas Jones

Political Reporter

Russia's invasion of its neighbour is in its sixth month. Nicholas Jones spent a week in Ukraine and met people enduring terror, injury and loss, and a Kiwi doctor in the thick of the fighting.

Jenny Beesley was sheltering on the frontline of the war in Ukraine when her radio crackled - an officer in her unit had been hit by shrapnel.

She sprinted to the bunker and found her mate bleeding heavily.

"There was still artillery fire everywhere. I tried everything I possibly could but he was dead.

"He died very quickly … he was a bloody good guy."

Beesley was working at Bay of Islands Hospital and mulling plans to sail the Pacific when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of its neighbour, shocking the world.

The 39-year-old doctor decided to offer her help. By late May she was in training for the Number One International Company, a new combat unit bringing together international volunteers and Ukrainians.

She's just completed a 40-day deployment in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region as lead medic for the company, and will soon be sent back to the fighting.

"I didn't leave the frontline, I didn't rotate. Because we just don't have anybody else with the skills to do the job," she told the Weekend Herald in an interview in Kyiv.

"We just don't have enough medics."

Jenny Beesley in front of an ambulance donated by Smart Medical Aid and soon destroyed by a Russian attack. Photo / Supplied
Jenny Beesley in front of an ambulance donated by Smart Medical Aid and soon destroyed by a Russian attack. Photo / Supplied

Her company was almost encircled. In another area, they came under tank and helicopter fire and got close enough to the enemy to engage in firefights.

But the war in Ukraine's east is now mostly a grinding artillery battle - "like World War I," Beesley says - and the distance shells can be fired means she cannot be kept back out of danger.

"Artillery is just a very brutal, blunt instrument. The boys can't see who is trying to kill them. We can't fight back. All we can do is just hide, and hope.

"We all have call signs. Mine is Kiwi, funnily enough. And that's the radio call I dread hearing - 'Hey, we need Kiwi here'. Because you know that means that one of the boys is hurt."

That happened when her friend was fatally hit by shrapnel. On July 18 there were four more deaths: two Americans, a Swede and a Canadian.

Luke Lucyszyn, a medic and father-of-two from South Carolina, was injured by shelling. The others who went to him perished in tank fire.

"All four of the boys who died were incredibly special humans," Beesley says. "But losing one of my medics was incredibly painful."

She met me the day before an official funeral for three of the men. Their deaths haven't made her reconsider the danger she faces, she says.

"I'm single, I've got no kids, no big mortgage, no huge attachments. Both my parents are dead and I'm an only child. I have a lot of friends who would miss me dearly, but it's not quite the same as leaving behind a spouse and kids.

"What this has taught me is I'm more a warrior than I'll ever be a healer. And when those boys died I wanted revenge. And all of the boys did.

"I don't know what makes one man afraid and another man unafraid. It doesn't make any sense to me. But, what I know is I am genuinely not afraid to die."

A damaged vehicle in Irpin, Ukraine. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova
A damaged vehicle in Irpin, Ukraine. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova

At nearly 40 Beesley says she's had a full, adventurous life; growing up working class in the UK, training to be a fighter jet pilot with the Royal Air Force, before moving to New Zealand in her 20s and completing medical training at the University of Auckland.

She's bounced around rural hospitals as a medical officer, and contracts for the Department of Conservation to advise on remote medicine for offshore island teams, and the Aoraki Mount Cook search and rescue team.

When in Northland she lives on a boat in Ōpua, but a more permanent home is a shack on Colac Bay Ōraka, near Invercargill.

"I've had incredible privilege, made all these friends and travelled all over the world. And if it had all ended yesterday I would have been stoked," she says.

"Some people think I'm reckless … but it's making peace with your own mortality - death is inevitable for all of us, it is just a little more immediate for us on the front line."

'We have simple AKs, but we have the heart to use them'

Beesley's initial email to the Ukrainian health ministry asking if they needed doctors went unanswered for five weeks. She made plans to sail Fiji on a ketch she had painstakingly restored, but dropped those when a reply came through: we do need help, when can you start, and what risks are you willing to take?

She booked plane tickets but heard nothing more. An anaesthetist friend at Auckland City Hospital mentioned she knew a colleague who had quit work at the hospital to return to her native Ukraine and help secure and distribute medical supplies.

Iryna Rybinkina, who was raised in Kyiv, had only recently started working in Auckland on a fellowship, after moving over her young family from the UK.

The cardiothoracic anaesthetist's non-government organisation, Smart Medical Aid, has delivered medical aid, training and support to help victims of injury and trauma in Ukraine since 2014, when conflict erupted with Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.

Dr Iryna Rybinkina, director of Smart Medical Aid and a former Auckland City Hospital specialist, stands underneath a bridge in the city of Irpin, Ukraine. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova
Dr Iryna Rybinkina, director of Smart Medical Aid and a former Auckland City Hospital specialist, stands underneath a bridge in the city of Irpin, Ukraine. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova

After Russia invaded on February 24 this year Rybinkina moved to Lviv, a city in Ukraine's west, to turbo-charge that work. Her husband and children, 9 and 3, have stayed in his native Netherlands.

Beesley spent a week helping sort medical supplies in a Lviv warehouse, before being put in touch with Rybinkina's army contact.

"Nek minnit, I'm on a bus to Zhytomyr military camp," she recalls.

Her company commander speaks Ukrainian, Russian, Hindi, some Greek, and English, and soldiers' homelands include Ukraine, Georgia, the US, Canada, Britain, Taiwan and Sweden.

Some members had military experience before joining, others none. The Ukrainians have diverse backgrounds, including a nuclear engineer, business consultant, videographer and artists, dancers and musicians.

"It's the No 8-wire approach. We don't have heaps of super-experienced guys with state-of-the-art equipment like some western nations.

"We have simple AKs, but we have the heart to use them, and we will sit under artillery all day and night to just make sure that it's not Russians who sit there day and night."

A civilian home destroyed by Russian shelling. Photo / Supplied
A civilian home destroyed by Russian shelling. Photo / Supplied

Lucyszyn's parents have told US media that shortly before his death he had complained about not having the right equipment. They tried talking him out of going to Ukraine.

Beesley declined to comment on those statements directly, out of respect for Lucyszyn and his family. Her personal view is that, "we mostly have what we need, most of the time", particularly given the Ukrainian army has swelled to 10 times the size it was before February 24.

"When I came over here, I watched my Ukrainian friends and colleagues buy their own gear, and saw that's how things are done here. If they don't have enough money they try to find sponsors, and try to fundraise.

"And I just did the same, and then when a bunch of it got stolen, lost and destroyed I did the same again. Sure, I think anyone coming from a Western nation and army would be really shocked and surprised, maybe, at that. But that is just how it works for us here."

Rybinkina helped by sending Beesley an ambulance loaded with high-grade medical gear and medications. When that was destroyed by shelling, she sent two more.

Dr Iryna Rybinkina, director of Smart Medical Aid and a former Auckland City Hospital specialist, talks to staff at a hospital in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova
Dr Iryna Rybinkina, director of Smart Medical Aid and a former Auckland City Hospital specialist, talks to staff at a hospital in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova

That's a drop in the ocean of what her organisation has done - among other supplies, it has delivered tens of thousands of tactical first-aid kits to conflict zones and hospitals, and sent on more than 30 ambulances donated from overseas and truckloads of top-end medical supplies. Equipment given to hospitals includes ultrasounds, CT and X-ray machines, and ventilators.

Those efforts can't meet the enormous need caused by Russia's invasion, which is now in its sixth month. International support has slowed, the head of one hospital told me, and with winter fast approaching, millions of people are still displaced and living in unsuitable, crowded temporary accommodation.

(The UN says some 7 million people have been displaced internally within Ukraine, and another 13 million are stranded in dangerous areas or unable to flee.)

Some have little economic choice but to return to often-damaged homes still in conflict zones.

"You think, 'How are we going to survive this winter?'" Rybinkina says. "We have already started preparing - ordering blizzard blankets, looking at generators."

Even in areas thousands of kilometres from the frontlines there is the threat of missile attack. Air-raid sirens sounded every day of my week in the country.

One volley launched by Russia from the Black Sea landed near Kyiv and wounded 15 people.

Last month a missile attack in Vinnytsia, southwest of the capital, killed 23, including three children, one of whom was a 4-year-old girl with Down syndrome who was returning from speech therapy.

"Everyday people hear the air alerts and wonder if it's coming towards them," Rybinkina, 40, says. "Even in Lviv, every time I hear it I think, 'It is going somewhere'.

"They [Russia] would fire out 150 missiles. You cannot shoot everyone down. Some will reach their destination. And they are aiming for civilian houses, for hospitals, for supermarkets."

Damaged buildings seen in the city of Irpin, Ukraine. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova
Damaged buildings seen in the city of Irpin, Ukraine. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova

The sirens are so frequent and the threat remote enough that many people hardly react, let alone seek shelter. However, others don't have that choice; Hanna Bulkina works as a physio and occupational therapist at Kyiv City Children Clinical Hospital and recently consulted on the care of twins born at just 25 weeks gestation soon before the invasion began.

Seven months on, their stay in neonatal intensive care at another hospital in the northern city of Chernihiv has been frequently interrupted to be wheeled into bomb shelters during air-raid alarms, as the city came under attack.

That pauses respiratory support needed to help air sacs in their lungs stay open, Bulkina says, and risks oxygen levels dropping too low - something that could have long-term consequences. There have been more premature births because of the stress of the war, she says.

On the second day of the invasion, Russian troops entered one of the outer buildings at the Kyiv children's hospital. Kids on ventilators were evacuated in an ambulance that was shot at, staff say. With a tank approaching doctors ferried away other patients in cars.

Many Western analysts expected the capital to fall, but after a month of fierce Ukrainian resistance Russian forces began to withdraw.

Kyiv is now far from the fighting. Anti-tank obstacles have been placed next to the outside seating of trendy bars and restaurants, which are full up to the 11pm curfew.

At check-in, hotel staff explain where the air-raid shelter is, along with the Wi-Fi password, and there's blast tape across room windows. In Saint Michael's Square people happily pose for photos by the burnt shells of Russian tanks, and kids climb over the wreckage.

To a visitor, it can feel surreal, like an exhibit of a past war. However, that's not the case just 40 minutes drive away, in a town now synonymous with atrocity.

Most buildings in the city of Irpin, Ukraine, were damaged or destroyed. Many remain uninhabitable months since Russian troops were pushed back. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova
Most buildings in the city of Irpin, Ukraine, were damaged or destroyed. Many remain uninhabitable months since Russian troops were pushed back. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova

Much of Irpin was seized by Russian troops trying to force their way to the capital. When they were eventually pushed back by Ukrainian forces the horror of the occupation became clear - most buildings were destroyed, damaged or burned to the ground, and the bodies of 290 civilians were found, with many more people missing.

Witnesses told of unprovoked violence, shootings and summary executions.

One woman in her 20s lay dead in the street for almost a month. Her face was unrecognisable after being run over repeatedly by Russian vehicles, locals told the BBC.

Larisa Osypova, 75, who ran the local kindergarten for decades, was shot in the face in her backyard, along with her husband. Others were killed by heavy and indiscriminate artillery and missile fire, or perished from a lack of food or medication.

I travel to Irpin with Rybinkina and her assistant, Volodymyr Yaremenko, whose twin sister Liudmyla Perepelytsia, a 33-year-old accountant, is back living in the town after fleeing with husband Serhii and 8-year-old daughter, Zhenia.

Volodymyr Yaremenko and his twin sister Liudmyla Perepelytsia in the damaged apartment of a friend of Liudmyla. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova
Volodymyr Yaremenko and his twin sister Liudmyla Perepelytsia in the damaged apartment of a friend of Liudmyla. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova

From the roof of their apartment high rise - still littered with shrapnel - she points out where Russian helicopters dropped bombs, what buildings were struck by missiles, and the forest below where bodies were later found.

They fled in freezing conditions hours after the attacks started in late February.

There was confusion and panic, with communications down and nobody sure where the Russians were. The roads were jammed, and the drive to safety took 26 hours. Missiles flew over the highways.

"People were trapped," Liudmyla remembers. "There was no information."

The family's apartment building took missile damage from the 7th floor up, and every window was smashed. They show me through the 9th floor home of their friend, an architect who is yet to return with his family.

In their absence, shrapnel blasted through the living room wall, spraying the interior and ripping holes in the roof and walls. The damage is more shocking amid the signs of normal life; a coffee percolator on the stove, towels on a clothes horse.

Anton Holovenko is the deputy head of the Irpin City Polyclinic hospital and together with doctors and staff stayed to help the injured after Russian forces attacked. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova
Anton Holovenko is the deputy head of the Irpin City Polyclinic hospital and together with doctors and staff stayed to help the injured after Russian forces attacked. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova

Another friend of Liudmyla and Serhii refused to leave. Anton Holovenko is the deputy head of the Irpin City Polyclinic hospital and, together with doctors and staff, stayed to help the injured.

When an explosion or attack happened - often in an apartment building - they would rush out in vehicles to collect the injured and dying.

Medical crosses were painted on the hospital walls and vehicles in the hope the Russians wouldn't fire on them. Instead, the signs seemed a provocation or target, Holovenko says.

They lost power, and patients and evacuees huddled in a section of the hospital considered safest as it was between two walls. In the dark and under missile strikes four babies were born.

"They were very joyful moments," Holovenko says.

Most buildings in the city of Irpin, Ukraine, were damaged or destroyed. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova
Most buildings in the city of Irpin, Ukraine, were damaged or destroyed. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova

Another came when his crew were told a family was trapped under continuous shelling. They couldn't find them and feared the worst, but shapes emerged from the rubble after they switched their headlights on.

"The father had a shrapnel wound to the abdomen, and there was a little girl. They understood we were their last hope. Thank God we could help them."

However, most days were dark, says Holovenko. The Russians shot a family fleeing in their car, and his team retrieved from the wreckage the body of an 11-year-old girl. (The burnt shells of dozens of civilian vehicles destroyed in the fighting are stacked in a heap outside of town.)

Bodies strewn around town were decomposing, so hospital staff and volunteers buried those they could reach in mass graves, to be exhumed later. Holovenko shows me where he buried two people around the back of the hospital.

Someone has stencilled a bird in Ukrainian blue and yellow and the style of Banksy on the side of a Russian armoured vehicle. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova
Someone has stencilled a bird in Ukrainian blue and yellow and the style of Banksy on the side of a Russian armoured vehicle. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova

Across a nearby path still strewn with glass and debris is a hospital wing where 150 people, including children, sheltered until Russian forces began targeting the building. Thankfully, everyone reached the bomb shelter before a strike destroyed cars and ambulances outside.

After the Russians left, it took a full two weeks to pick up all the bodies, Holovenko says, and authorities are still working to identify victims.

Every family knows somebody killed or injured. People roam the surrounding forests searching for the remains of loved ones.

International delegations now tour the town and promise help, which hasn't yet arrived in any meaningful way. Much has been done by locals to clean up and repair, but many buildings are still damaged and some are nothing more than crumbled, scorched shells.

Damaged buildings in Irpin, Ukraine. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova
Damaged buildings in Irpin, Ukraine. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova

People live in basements and old railway carriages.

"The war goes on. Two days ago there were more missile strikes close by. Every day we hear missile air alerts. Our men are volunteering to join the army, and they die every day," says Holovenko, who is 38 and looks like he'd be at home in a rugby front-row.

"We are trying to put the town back together [but] 75 per cent is destroyed … we need to find where to put people for the coming winter. We need to start to think of what to do next."

The International Criminal Court and UN are investigating possible war crimes in Irpin, nearby Bucha and beyond. Russia denies all war crime allegations or targeting civilians, and claims the war is a "special military operation" to "deNazify" and disarm Ukraine.

Southwest of Irpin a road is now lined with the burnt husks of Russian armoured vehicles, which have become a tourist attraction for Ukrainians.

A man sits with brush and easel painting the scene, and carloads of families unload to walk through the wreckage. Someone has stencilled a butterfly and bird on the side of vehicles, in Ukrainian blue and yellow and the style of Banksy.

Southwest of Irpin a highway is now lined with the burnt husks of Russian armoured vehicles. A man sits with brush and easel painting the scene. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova
Southwest of Irpin a highway is now lined with the burnt husks of Russian armoured vehicles. A man sits with brush and easel painting the scene. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova

Out for another look is Sergiy, a resident of the nearby village of Dmytrivka. The vehicles were in his hometown for three weeks in March, before being ambushed and destroyed.

The Russians regularly shot at residents, he says, and demanded petrol by putting a gun to the head of a child. A grave with civilians was found in a nearby village after its liberation.

"We don't have any happiness, or any joy. We go to bed and wake up just thinking of what happened. The population is very angry," Sergiy says.

'War is 90 per cent boredom'

That fight has now moved mostly to the east of the country, where Russia has made gains in territory and controls much of the two regions that form the industrial Donbas.

During her time at the front, Beesley came under attack every day.

"Sometimes not an hour will go by without your getting shelled that makes you seek shelter. Other days maybe you'll get that twice a day, and in between times you can take your boots off and clean your weapon. You just never know."

Movement is quickly spotted by enemy drones or aircraft. One day Beesley and her Company Commander walked several kilometres to find injured men, and they were shelled continuously.

"I was listening to the intervals and when I got back to the bunker - because there's stuff-all to do, war is 90 per cent boredom - I calculated, by the rough cost of a shell, it was probably around US$200,000 they spent.

"One of the single best things I've done in this war is waste all that money from the Russian Treasury, on two idiots going for a bush walk."

New Zealand doctor Jenny Beesley shelters with members of her unit during time at the frontlines of the war in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region. Photo / Supplied
New Zealand doctor Jenny Beesley shelters with members of her unit during time at the frontlines of the war in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region. Photo / Supplied

Being under artillery fire can force hard decisions. That happened when Beesley went to a soldier whose leg was broken and pinned under debris from a house that had been blown up.

The shelling started up again. She and the man were sheltered under the concrete slab, but as the fire got closer and closer she sent other rescuers away.

Beesley eventually retreated after her commander came out to order her back, but before doing so, "I filled him up with some ketamine so at least he was having a good time - it's a wonderful drug".

She thought about her options. Plan A was to cut some struts that could help lever the slab enough to get the man's leg free, Plan B was to use a vehicle jack, and Plan C to amputate the limb using a Leatherman Multi-tool.

"I was confident I could do that if I had to, if he was [otherwise] going to die."

Fortunately, the first approach worked. "It took us maybe 15 minutes, and the last five minutes the shelling was coming closer, and closer and closer. We just got the guy out."

Have those sorts of injuries been confronting?

"As a young emergency department registrar, I'd often get asked to certify the death of a suicide. You'd get brought up to the back door and go out and some guy would be in pieces.

"Terrible. And some of it was akin to the injuries of war. I've seen blast injuries from industrial explosions, electrocutions, traumatic amputations from accidents - some dreadful things."

The tail section of a Russian rocket. Photo / Supplied
The tail section of a Russian rocket. Photo / Supplied

What is different is the treatment environment, and the quality medical gear supplied by Smart Medical Aid such as gold-standard, combat-grade tourniquets has saved lives, Beesley says.

"Those things have got to be tight. In Auckland you might apply one in an ambulance to treat a motorcyclist who's had a traumatic amputation of his leg. And then you'd drive on a nice road to a hospital 15 minutes away.

"Here, you put them on, you put them in the back of a car, you leave them, you bounce them all the way to whatever provincial town that you are going to. And on the way they'll get shot at by artillery - the stresses and strains on the gear are so marked."

Vehicles are also desperately needed and are quickly destroyed by shelling.

"Ukraine doesn't have any more utes. They have run out. We got utes from Poland, and then we went further west and further west," says Beesley, who recently brought in a ute from the UK that she bought with money donated by a sailing mate.

New Zealand doctor Jenny Beesley has seen combat in Ukraine after joining a company bringing together international volunteers and Ukrainians. Photo / Supplied
New Zealand doctor Jenny Beesley has seen combat in Ukraine after joining a company bringing together international volunteers and Ukrainians. Photo / Supplied

Friends and old colleagues from New Zealand have put thousands of dollars into her account to help buy gear. A friend from Hamilton donated a $4500 drone.

Heather Penman, an emergency doctor in Queenstown who completed a stint helping Smart Medical Aid in Lviv, including training people to teach basic life support, brought the drone and a suitcase of essentials: NZ flags, Whittaker's chocolate, Mourea coffee and Earth Sea Sky merino underwear.

Underwear is much appreciated, but what will turn the war is more heavy, long-range weaponry supplied from Western governments, Beesley says. The arrival of US-made precise HIMARS rocket launchers "has been a step-change for us".

"The motivation is strong. The resources are coming, albeit slowly."

A city transformed

Lviv is about 70km from the Polish border and has become a hub for tens of thousands of displaced Ukrainians, and for war and aid preparations.

It was founded in the late Middle Ages and its Old Town is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Electric trams slide over cobblestone streets, and queues stretch outside a waffle cone hole-in-the-wall, next to an Apple electronics store and fashion boutiques.

Parks are filled with dog-walkers, joggers and cyclists, and laughing teenagers sing along to Lady Gaga playing through a Bluetooth speaker.

But these scenes of daily life have new details: sandbags cover street-level church windows, military checkpoints demand paperwork, men in camouflage walk german shepherds, and dozens of new graves have been dug outside the cemetery walls.

The war is also filling the city's hospitals. The rehabilitation centre at one I visit is full and hundreds of Covid patients have been replaced by both injured soldiers and civilians.

Four men lie in close-together beds in Room 9 of the orthopaedics ward. One has his wife by his side after a hip replacement, but the others are far from family and home.

Volodymyr was walking his dog in Lysychansk, an eastern city heavily damaged by Russian shelling, when a missile landed nearby.

Shrapnel broke his leg and peeled away skin and muscle. Military medics nearby applied a tourniquet and injected him with a powerful painkiller.

He was moved to a series of hospitals and had his third surgery in Lviv. His home city has since been captured by Russian forces and, with no reliable internet there ,the oil refinery worker has no way to communicate with his trapped wife and 14-year-old daughter.

He asks my translator to help the bare-chested elderly man in the bed next to him, who was also evacuated from the east.

Missile shrapnel shredded his foot and hit nerves. He lost his identity documents (which make getting government assistance easier) while being evacuated, and arrived in Lviv with only the blood-stained clothes he was wearing. He has a daughter but she is also trapped in a Russian-occupied area and uncontactable.

Mykola suffered head and hand injuries after what is likely to have been a mine exploded. He is now in Lviv, far from his home and grappling with an uncertain future. Photo / Iryna Rohovyk
Mykola suffered head and hand injuries after what is likely to have been a mine exploded. He is now in Lviv, far from his home and grappling with an uncertain future. Photo / Iryna Rohovyk

Across from them is Mykola, a 34-year-old from a small village north of Donetsk. He was working on his employer's farm on May 12, the morning after another night of heavy shelling, when he picked up a small green object that looked like a box.

What he now suspects was a mine exploded. Everything went black, and when he regained consciousness he felt excruciating pain.

He's lost vision in an eye, and scars run across his face and skull. The blast also shredded his thumb and pinky on his right hand, which have been amputated.

Mykola is soon to be released from hospital. He has no real family support; his father is dead and his mother, who battled alcohol addiction, lives in a region of Donetsk that has been controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

"I was born with some disabilities, so I cannot read or write and do not have a Ukrainian ID … the only document I have is my birth certificate.

"Truly, I just don't know where I should go."

'I will not be a prisoner of war'

Smart Medical Aid has donated tonnes of equipment to more than 100 hospitals, with its drivers risking their lives to drop off desperately-needed supplies in areas near the fighting.

Volodymyr Kononiuk, a 42-year-old marine officer and father of two from Odessa, can't hear properly after damage from being near a missile attack three weeks ago. In another close-shave, his GPS plotted the wrong route near the northern border with Russia.

"We drove around for one or two hours. Through fields and forests. There were burnt tanks around. Suddenly we appeared at the [Ukrainian military ] checkpoint, and the only question was, 'How did you manage to drive through all of this - that area is heavily mined.'"

The reaction of people receiving the supplies makes it worth it. After he delivered posterior walking aids (brand new and donated from Ireland) to Kyiv City Children Clinical Hospital he was sent a video showing 8-year-old Kostia Vlasenko trying one out.

The boy, who has cerebral palsy and could previously only take slow, uncomfortable steps using a basic walker, is nervous. But after a couple of steps he takes off, beaming in happiness and running so fast Bulkina scrambles to slow him down before he crashes into a couch.

"Most of the training is very painful for him and he's reluctant to do it," says his mother, Tetiana, who was brought to tears by the breakthrough.

"When the training brings him joy - that's the best moment we can feel."

Most equipment requests are less uplifting, but help save lives: vital monitors, for example, and high-grade bandages, blades, antibiotics, needles and QuikClot combat gauze.

Rybinkina was recently asked by the national police to supply helmets and body armour made especially for children. She hadn't known such gear existed.

"During evacuations, the Russians shell the ambulances, and they've lost children … now Ukrainian children have to wear helmets. What have we come to, in the 21st century?"

Another plea for help came after a 31-year-old hospital worker was kidnapped by Russian forces and, along with others, tortured and beaten.

His boots were filled with water and he was made to lie face down in freezing conditions outside. All his toes turned black and were amputated shortly before he was released as part of a prisoner exchange.

"We transported him to Kyiv. But he cannot easily stand up," Rybinkina says. "His dad is still captured, he doesn't know if he is alive or not."

On the frontline, Beesley won't wear or carry anything that could identify herself as a medic. Her Company Commander jokingly thanks her for being the Russians' number one target, above him.

While death doesn't scare her, being captured does.

"I've got a grenade in my gear for that eventuality. I will not be a prisoner of war of the Russians. There's just no chance."

Beesley photographed in Kyiv after completing a rotation to the frontlines of the war in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region as lead medic. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova
Beesley photographed in Kyiv after completing a rotation to the frontlines of the war in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region as lead medic. Photo / Olena Kalashnikova

People back home ask her how long she'll stay for, and she replies, "Ask Putin". Another question she struggles with is her motivation for being there.

"Yes, we have our reasons to come to Ukraine to fight. But once you get here you have reasons to be here that are just beyond words.

"You have your comrades, your brothers-in-arms - you lose guys, guys get hurt, teams get built - those are the reasons we are here. It sort of has nothing to do with why I got on a plane."

But her war is also the smell of blood, and the face of an old woman who came to her for help with a burnt leg that Beesley knew would kill her.

"War is so stupid. We all want the same thing - to love and be loved, we've all got family and friends and we want everyone to be happy.

"War doesn't serve any of those things. It doesn't serve any of us. It is just so sad, and so pointless."

• Further information about Smart Medical Aid and how to donate can be found here.