By Karen Mansfield, Herald-Standard
June 29, 2022
When Melissa Myers started her medical career as a pediatric cardiac intensive care nurse more than a decade ago, she started going on medical mission trips with Novick Cardiac Alliance.
The organization is led by Dr. William Novick, a Tennessee pediatric cardiac surgeon, who travels to some of the world’s most war-torn and devastated places to fix children’s hearts.
Among the places Myers traveled to with Novick are Colombia and Iraq.
Eight years ago, when Myers, a family nurse practitioner at WVU Medicine - Fay West Primary Care, was six months’ pregnant with her oldest son, Zachary, she traveled to Ukraine on what she believed might be her last humanitarian mission. But then, on Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Novick planned a trip to provide humanitarian support to children in Lviv, Ukraine, and Myers jumped at the chance to volunteer. “When I found out Dr. Novick was going back, I had to go back. I thought this is one small thing I can do to help,” said Myers, a mother of three. “My husband was 100% on board, and he agreed. I want my kids to know if they’re capable of helping a little bit, it’s the right thing to do.”
Myers, 35, of Greensburg, left on June 4, and she and her team landed in Krakow, Poland. With medical equipment and supplies in tow, they traveled by bus and taxi to the Polish/Ukrainian border. There, they trekked across the border and caught a taxi for the 10-hour ride to Lviv. Myers and other medical volunteers from the United States, England, and the European Union worked at St. Nicholas Children’s Hospital, alongside doctors and nurses whose spouses, fathers and brothers were fighting on the front lines. She worked 12- to 20-hour daily shifts.
Myers said the mission trip was unlike any she’s experienced. “I’ve never had such an emotional trip,” said Myers. “I’m a mother. I see myself in every mother. I see my kid in every kid.” During the 12 days Myers was in Lviv, she and her team completed a dozen surgeries. Ten of the surgeries were successful.
Following surgery, two babies were transported – with the help of international humanitarian groups – to Germany for additional medical treatment. Myers accompanied one of the babies, a 3-month-old boy, by ambulance and then by airplane, to Munich, and then returned to Lviv. Two babies died, including an infant that Myers cared for on the first night she arrived in the ravaged country. The mother wasn’t able to get to the hospital, so Myers held vigil. “It was a hard way to start off the trip. Kids should not die alone,” she said. “I held him, and I was there for his last breath.”
She was overwhelmed, too, at the courage of the doctors and nurses at the hospital who showed up every day to care for sick children while their spouses, fathers, and brothers continue to fight on the front lines and Russian forces continue to attack the country. “Every single one of them is impacted by the war. While their world is crumbling around them, these heroes still come to work to care for children who probably would not survive without them,” said Myers.
Myers said she was unsettled by repeated air raid sirens outside the hospital walls warning of potential Russian air strikes. “There were nights where team members slept in the bomb shelter in the hospital in case of an air strike,” she said.
She recalled that after one busy night shift, several air raid sirens went off. The team was worried because moving the pediatric patients to the bomb shelter would be a near-impossible task. “But looking at the local staff, they were completely unfazed, which was both inspiring and heartbreaking,” she said. “This is their new normal.” Myers said it was heartbreaking to hear families of the patients share their stories.
One mother, Tanya, gave birth in a small bomb shelter two weeks after Ukraine was invaded. She, along with three other mothers in labor, didn’t have access to routine medications used during delivery. Instead of hospital beds, they sat in chairs.
Tanya’s baby was one of the babies who underwent surgery for a heart defect. The baby’s father was fighting the war. “When these women got pregnant, their world was fine. Everything was normal. And then there was war,” said Myers.
On June 18, Myers returned home, where she was greeted by her husband, Dr. Paul Myers, Inpatient Medical Director/Chief of Medicine at WVU Medicine - Uniontown Hospital, and their children, Zachary, 8, Jacob, 5, and Penelope, 3.
If she has a chance to return to Ukraine, “I absolutely, 100%, would go,” Myers said. “But that’s asking a lot of my family, my children, and my co-workers,” she said. “I say thank you to everybody who made it possible to go.”
WVU Medicine - Uniontown Hospital President and CEO Dr. David Hess said he is inspired and moved by Myers’ commitment and care for children in the war-torn country. “Melissa’s story is incredible, and she is an inspiration to us all,” said Hess. “She has a true servant’s heart, and we are so proud that she is a part of our team.”
Myers said she felt blessed to be a part of the volunteer medical team. She noted that the three other hospitals in Ukraine that could have performed complex medical surgeries on the babies are not operational. “We were helping babies that wouldn’t have any other option if we hadn’t been there,” said Myers. “If I can be a small part of something that made a difference for them, I have to do it.”