Today will be a terrible day in Malawi, where more than 500 died in Cyclone Freddy last month, and everything is flattened.
Today will be a terrible day in Turkey and Syria, where thousands died in the Feb. 6 earthquake and cities are piles of rubble.
And today will be a worse day in Ukraine, where flames will burn off skin, where cordite will propel lead through soft tissue and turn bone into fragments.
This crescendo of horror isn’t the product of aberrant nature, but aberrant men. It didn’t have to happen.
But horror is all in a day’s work for two remarkable women, one in Slovakia and one in Louisville, Ky. Their task is to get life-saving supplies to victims of Russia’s war in Ukraine day after day. They share a similar first name.
Denise Sears is the president of SOS International in Louisville. It has a unique position among aid agencies: Its mission is to collect, certify and transport medical surplus of all kinds, from medicines and bandages to X-ray and other imaging equipment and even incubators.
Hospitals across the United States collect and send their surplus to SOS International, where it is certified for potency or functionality. Then it heads to where it is needed — at present, Ukraine, Turkey and Syria, and Malawi.
There are more than 100 hospital donors, and there are tax advantages for hospital donations. “Their donations incentivize others and boost morale among staff. Donating is their way of being able to impact the lives of people in the world,” Sears said in an interview on Zoom.
As a medium-sized organization, SOS International can be very nimble, she said, adding, “We’re big enough to have an impact, but small enough to pivot.”
Denisa Augustinova is the director of operations and co-founder of Magna, which delivers medical supplies collected by SOS International and other groups to where they are used in Ukraine, Turkey and other places hit by natural disasters, wars and conflicts. It has 2,000 staff on the ground in or near crisis areas.
Denisa has visited almost every war and disaster zone over the past two decades. But today, it is Ukraine that has her attention and where the work has been difficult and distressing.
I caught up with her when she was visiting — and meeting for the first time — Sears in Louisville. The two women have been working together, collecting and channeling medical necessities to Ukraine for a year.
“We were working for many years with the Ministry of Health in Ukraine. Our medical initiatives are in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions,” Augustinova told me in a Zoom interview.
She said that by the end of 2021, Magna had been forced to evacuate most of its medical staff from their facilities.
“We were shocked by the cruelty and the strong bombing. Shocked, but not surprised by the scale of it,” she said.
Supplies from SOS International, sometimes carried by corporations that volunteer transportation — UPS made an aircraft available — make their way to Ukraine mostly from Munich and Warsaw, where Magna takes over and sends them by truck and train to their war-zone hospitals. Sears said 12 shipments, 1.3 million medical items, have been sent to Ukraine.
The two women’s medical supplies are often the difference between life and death.
As a success, Augustinova noted, “Babies were delivered in hospitals without power or beds, the alarms going off and the bombs. We were able to save them because we already had the incubators and the supplies of formula in place.”
But the war rages, and the horror is endless.
Augustinova said, “I have in my mind the brutality of the war on children and old people. In 2023, we still have to deal with the killing of innocents. We are still facing the killing of civilians in spite of the Geneva Convention and humanitarian law. Humanitarian workers are attacked: doctors and nurses, ambulance drivers are killed. Our team members are victims.”
She added, “Women are raped, and children are raped. It happens all the time.”
Sears and Augustinova are bound by motherhood and being compelled to help. Sears lost her daughter, Lauren, who died at 23 of a hospital infection. That inspired her to do humanitarian work.
Augustinova has two daughters, far from the war, ages 8 and 14. “They keep asking me why the children can’t go to school, and why they have to die?”
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