I think everyone in the world is familiar with Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, a wonderful humanitarian group of doctors and other medical professionals that is best known for its projects in conflict zones and in countries affected by endemic diseases. But last night, I came across another group, Mobile Medics International founded by Teresa Gray. Mobile Medics International sends volunteer medical professionals to disaster areas and humanitarian crisis around the world, and the current crisis in Ukraine is what brought the organization to fame and Teresa Gray to the attention of CNN where she became the latest CNN Hero.
Ms. Gray and the group are based in Anchorage, Alaska, just a 4,500-mile hop, skip, and a jump from Ukraine, but that didn’t stop them. When they deploy, it’s normally within 72 hours of a disaster to fill the gap before larger groups are fully operational. Their missions typically last seven to 10 days.
But the Ukraine crisis required a different type of response. Four days after the invasion, one of her volunteers from England began driving along the western border of Ukraine to assess where their help would be most needed. Eventually, they determined that Romania was overwhelmed by refugees but lacked infrastructure other countries, like Poland, had.
When her group members deploy, they’re prepared to be entirely self-sustaining. This ensures that they can work for days at a time without taxing the local infrastructure.
“We can bring our own food, our own water, our own sleeping accommodations. We try to take basically an ambulance in a backpack. This is the most dangerous mission we’ve ever done. We’re taking the necessary medicine for chemical warfare, in case chemical weapons are deployed. But honestly, the heroes are my volunteers who were begging to go.”
Gray’s team was told about hundreds of refugees on a university campus who had very limited medical care. When they arrived at the campus in Galati on March 26, Gray was surprised …
But I think I’ll let Ms. Gray tell you her story and that of Mobile Medics International, for she does it so much better than I could, but be sure you have a box of tissues at hand …
What follows is a small portion of an interview between a CNN correspondent and Ms. Gray …
CNN: How did you find your way into the medical field?
Teresa Gray: Growing up in Michigan, my godmother was a paramedic instructor, and she would drag me down to the firehouse and make me be a mock victim. I would have to be bandaged and splinted and all sorts of things while they practiced their skills. I loved it. After high school, I stumbled across an ad for an EMT, and I thought, “I’ll go give it a shot,” and it all made sense to me. I knew in that moment I had found my career.
I started as an EMT, became a paramedic. Eventually I moved to Alaska and ended up being a critical-care flight paramedic. Our cities are hundreds of miles apart, so our ambulances are Lear jets. We fly to the villages, pick people up and bring them back to major cities. I’ve picked up patients in dogsleds, on snow machines — whatever we needed to do to make it happen, I’ve tried all the different avenues of paramedicine. I’ve loved them all. Now I’m a registered nurse, but I also still hold my paramedic license.
CNN: What led you to get involved in disaster response work?
Gray: In late 2015, I had semi-retired. I was a stay-at-home mom, and I was watching TV and I saw the 3-year-old Syrian child on the beach of Lesbos face down in the water. I had not really been aware of what was going on over in Greece or the Syrian refugee crisis. And so I just decided that I was going to go to Greece and see if I could help. It was life-changing. These people were stepping off the boats, soaking wet, hypothermic. It was heartbreaking. But I made a difference for people.
CNN: In addition to natural and humanitarian disasters, your group also does medical sustainability missions.
Gray: We will find communities that are chronically medically underserved, and we ask them to commit five years to building their own medical infrastructure, and we support them during that time. We’ve done that with the Philippines very successfully. We normally go in twice a year and we give them the equipment, the supplies, the medications they need, and the ongoing training. And then we also mentor them and support them through telemedicine.
When we first started going to a remote island in the Philippines, they had a huge population of cleft-palate babies being born, just simply because their nutrition wasn’t good. Within three years, we eliminated cleft-palate babies on that island by giving out prenatal vitamins. That’s all it took — but that’s what it took. So that’s what we do. It doesn’t matter what you need, if we can provide that for you, we will.
My hat is off to this wonderful woman who came out of retirement and to her wonderful team of volunteers who put their lives on hold in order to help people, to save lives.