How one doctor is supporting Ukraine by providing medical supplies

A Cleveland, Ohio internist explains how he leverages his ties to local physicians and the Ukrainian community and to provide vital medical equipment to that beleagured nation.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has produced an outpouring of support for that nation from all Americans, but especially those of Ukrainian descent or with family ties to that nation. Among them is Taras Mahlay, M.D., an internist in Cleveland Ohio with deep ties to the city’s Ukrainian community. Since the start of the invasion has been leading a drive to collect and ship vital medical supplies to Ukraine.

Medical Economics spoke recently with Dr. Mahlay to learn how he organized the project and how it’s been going. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Medical Economics: Talk about your background. Are you a native of Ukraine?

Taras Mahlay, M.D.: No, my parents escaped in the 1940s. I was born, raised and still live in Cleveland, Ohio. I went to Ohio State for undergrad, to Northeast Ohio College of Medicine [now Northeast Ohio Medical University] for medical school, did my training at the Cleveland Clinic and now practice at University Hospitals of Cleveland, both in the hospital and an outpatient setting.

ME: How did you get involved with collecting medical supplies and sending them to Ukraine?

TM: I've always been involved in the Ukrainian community. And after Ukraine became an independent country in the 1990s I started traveling there. I met my wife there and she's a physician too. And I've always been helping getting supplies, and even lecturing there and basically getting them more prepared for the Western world as opposed to the old Soviet state.

More recently, since my children have grown up and are in college, I've been significantly more active with doing lectures, podcasts and teaching virtually. And I've been with different organizations here in Cleveland sending medical supplies.

ME: Do you speak the language, and do you have family there?

TM: I do speak the language, and I have second and third cousins there. Some of them are physicians.

ME: What sorts of supplies have you been sending?

TM: At first, we were getting and sending a lot of PPE: gowns, gloves, masks, sanitizing. And we had a tremendous amount of gifts from hospitals and individuals to the point that we were well stocked up on that.

But I'm in contact with Ukraine, both with my colleagues, and with the Ministry of Health and they were telling me the biggest thing they really need is wound care. Because basically, they’re dealing with trauma. You see some of the things that are happening on TV or on the internet.

But there's a lot more injuries than the one bomb or missile that hits an apartment complex. There are many injuries and their hospitals are overfilled with injuries. So now we're mostly sending gauze wraps, orthopedic supplies, that sort of thing, because of so many broken bones and wounds. Anything you can think of with relation to injuries we are now sending.

ME: How do you let people know that medical supplies are needed there?

TM: When this [invasion] happened, the next day I was on the phone, calling different vendors, hospitals, and so on. Obviously in my community after 30 years, you develop relationships, and you just ask them, and it's been overwhelming how much everybody's been helping.

ME: And you already had the supply chains established for getting the materials over there, right?

TM: Yeah. But before there was no rush, we would, you know, gather enough pallets for a shipment that would show up there in four to six weeks. Well, now they need it yesterday. And the other problem is, before the war we were able to ship directly to Kyiv, Kharkiv, all the major cities in Ukraine. Well, we can't ship there now. So our chain is flying it into Warsaw, and from there we have truckers that come from Ukraine across the border, picking up the supplies with semis and driving them to Lviv, which is the major city in western Ukraine.

So our supply chain has changed significantly. And whenever we send a shipment it's a lot more difficult. But we do have some people on the ground there. And we try to monitor that the shipments are getting to the hospitals, and that nothing's happening to them. We’ve sent four big shipments so far and reports are they’ve all arrived at their intended destinations.

ME: How do the supplies get from Cleveland to Warsaw?

TM: There are several trucking companies among the Ukrainian community here in Cleveland. And they pretty much are all on board with what we’re doing. So one of the hospitals calls me and says they have supplies to donate. I call a driver, who picks up the supplies at the hospital and takes it to a warehouse where we check it to make sure nothing's expired or going to expire soon. And we make sure everything's wrapped and all good. And we have volunteers filling out all the necessary forms.

So if I get a call right now from a hospital, I could probably have somebody picking it up in two hours. And they'll have it at Newark or JFK by morning. But then we have to get a flight. And the number one company that we're using is LOT, the Polish airline. They fly direct to Warsaw from Newark, from JFK and from Chicago.

ME: What are you hearing from your contacts there about the situation generally and how they're feeling? Are they frightened, or worried?

TM: Well, the ones that we're doing the logistics with are in western Ukraine and not much is going on there. So relatively speaking, they're upbeat. But most of my friends and colleagues that I've gotten to know over the past 30 years are in Kyiv. They've been pretty much positive, however, you can see they're quite frustrated because they're pretty much working 20 hours a day because the whole hospital is filled with injured people. And obviously bombs are going off. And sometimes you catch them when there is bombing and ask, ‘Are you going to the shelter?’ He goes, ‘We’ve got patients, we're not going to be carrying patients down into the shelter.’

My cousin's a physician and I call her every other day. And she tries to be positive, but at times I hear her tearing up.

ME: Not surprising, given all that’s happening over there.

TM:Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of unbelievable. We're in 2022 and this is going on. We all thought this was all done with 80 years ago.

ME: What do your patients, colleagues, people you encounter here say when they hear what you're doing?

TM: Everybody's been encouraging. I had my office manager block out my schedule so I have some open spots. That’s when I'm calling vendors, organizing the logistics of deliveries. My partners said, ‘whatever you need, take the time off to do it.’ With my patients there’s been plenty of support. Everybody's asking where to donate, how to donate.

ME Have you had to cut back on the number of patients you see?

TM: Absolutely. I've cut down 50%-60%. Things that could wait, like physicals or preventative care, I kind of moved to later because I really want to get this organized.

ME: It sounds like a full-time job just by itself.

TM: Well, I have some nieces and nephews, who I grabbed. They’re my technical support for organizing stuff. We went to the warehouse where at one point we probably had 50 or 60 pallets of supplies. We went through it and I said what it all was. By the time I drove home, here comes an email, and it has an Excel spreadsheet with everything on where it’s supposed to go.

ME: How long do you think you’ll continue doing this?

TM: My plan is to do as much as I can. Obviously, I don't want my patients to suffer and in our office we do have coverage. Maybe some patients want to see me because they've known me for many years, but they're really understanding. I had to reschedule one patient twice. I really wanted to see her. But I had to go to the to the warehouse and take care of a shipment. And she said, ‘Just move me to wherever you want.’

How long can I keep this up? I think as long as my health is good I'm just going to keep on going.

ME: Does what you’re doing involve any financial sacrifice on your part?

TM:When I don't work, I don't get paid. But that's okay. What are they [Ukrainians] losing compared to my salary? I mean, why are we even talking about money? People are dying. And me getting a pallet of antibiotics that may save I don't know, 50 or 100 people, because they may be sitting in some ward trying to heal but if they don't have the antibiotics they're going to die. They have nowhere else to get it.

ME: How can other doctors help Ukraine?

TM:I'm working with a lot of organizations actually. But the one that I’ve been most active with is this one in Cleveland called Cleveland Maidan Association. And we also have the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America. And that's doctors and nurses, who’ve kind of grouped together and done different projects throughout the years. But now that's all ramped up. I'm in contact with Detroit, with New York, with Chicago, to coordinate so we're not all shipping similar things, you know, but no gauze to wipe something down.

So those are the more medical ones. We also have umbrella Ukrainian community organizations, and they're working through politicians. Senator [Rob] Portman [R-Ohio] is helpful. Congresswoman [Marcy] Kaptur [D-Ohio] is helpful. And the hospitals here in Cleveland have been very supportive. I saw the lists of what they're planning on shipping over. And it's going to be a great shipment for intensive care units. Those are the ones that we really worry about. I mean, outpatient stuff, people can better fend for themselves. But where you have major injuries, that's where our focus is now.

ME: Anything more you’d like to add?

TM: We're just praying that this will end. And we know that even if it ends soon, cleaning up this mess is still going to take a long time.