Sometimes purpose, service, and responsibility converge to create new opportunities for meaningful action. For Adrian Bonenberger and his wife, Iryna Solomko, this included making another trip to Ukraine.
Bonenberger is the editor of Yale Medicine Magazine and Solomko is a Ukrainian journalist who works for Voice of America. Their latest travel to Kyiv took place in October, shortly after the city had been struck by cruise missile and kamikaze drone attacks, and would serve myriad purposes.
As Kyiv braces for a winter without the possibility of heat, water, or power, they wanted to adequately assist Solomko’s parents prepare for the coming months. While in Ukraine’s capital city, Bonenberger had also accepted responsibility to hand-deliver a care package of medical supplies from Kristaps Keggi, MD to a former student of his who is now a leading orthopaedic surgeon treating war wounds at a local hospital.
Bonenberger and Solomko initially traveled to Ukraine in mid-March, less than a month after Russia invaded, to help bring her family to Connecticut. Solomko’s parents fled to Lviv as the invading Russian forces reached only blocks away from their southern Kyiv home. In a story that was covered by the New Haven Register, both made effective use of their time abroad.
Bonenberger, a former U.S. Army infantry officer who completed two tours in Afghanistan, provided small unit tactics training to local Ukrainian civilians. Solomko assisted with humanitarian aid efforts before they crossed Ukraine’s western border into Poland with her parents and flew home.
At the same time, Keggi, an Army veteran himself who was a premier orthopaedic surgeon specializing in combat injuries with the 3rd Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during Vietnam, was contacted by a former student, Olafs Libermanis, MD. Libermanis, a fellow Latvian national like Keggi, and an alum of the Keggi-Kimball International Scholars Program, filled a van with medical equipment and left the city of Riga, to offer his expertise in Kyiv, Ukraine and assist the war effort.
Keggi has a special appreciation for what surgeons like Libermanis. “Since his arrival in Kyiv, Dr. Libermanis has spoken about ongoing bombardments, managing AK-47 wounds, eating meals in candle-lit rooms, and adjusting to not turning on the lights at night amidst air raids,” Keggi said. “His decision to go to Ukraine and help those in need during this terrible time is extremely courageous.”
Months passed and, as many Ukrainians began to return home, so too did Iryna’s parents.
“I believe there is something genuinely unique about Ukrainians, their fortitude, and their connection to their home,” Bonenberger said. “Although my in-laws knew they could stay with us indefinitely, they went back at the end of July and were determined to reestablish themselves in Kyiv.”
The paths converged when a contact of Solomko’s reached out with a picture of a patient and expressed a need for medical supplies. After Solomko shared the image with her husband, Bonenberger contacted Keggi, a Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame inductee, whom he knew closely, to appeal for help. Keggi, in turn shared the photo with Libermanis, who was still operating in Kyiv, to ask what items were needed. As fate would have it, Libermanis treated the patient featured in the photo.
As Bonenberger and his wife began to make plans to visit her parents, he and Keggi shared their stories behind their mutual connections at a recent Yale Veterans Association event. They talked about Bonenberger's upcoming trip and Keggi asked him to deliver a suitcase of medical supplies to his former student, Dr. Libermanis – an ask that Bonenberger answered.
When Bonenberger and Solomko returned to Ukraine, the atmosphere was noticeably different from their previous trip in March.
“In general things look much more settled and prepared compared to at the start of the invasion,” Bonenberger said. “Now, there were machine gun placements, trenches, and soldiers in plate armor who were all well-equipped. You could tell from those I interacted with that, although things have been and are still difficult, they are safer than they were a short time ago. War is their new reality and, while they may not expect things to get better for the foreseeable future, spirits are high and there is a palpable aura of hope.”
Bonenberger and his wife met Libermanis at a small restaurant in Kyiv amid rolling blackouts and following recent strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure to hand-deliver medical equipment from Keggi. Among the assorted supplies that Libermanis would be able to use to treat Ukrainian civilians and soldiers alike were textbooks on orthopaedic trauma, joint reconstruction, and Keggi’s new memoir, My Century: A memoir of war, peace and pioneering in the operating room.
As a U.S. Army veteran, Bonenberger maintains a special appreciation for privately sourcing supplies. “Leveraging connections and professional relationships is extremely important and not something to be underestimated,” he said. “During one of my tours in Afghanistan, we received care packages and crowd sourced about $25,000 worth of supplies from the families and friends of those I was serving alongside. That, combined with government support, makes a huge difference,” he continued. “It makes me proud that I am part of an institution like Yale where like-minded people are actively supporting others in the best way possible. It’s incredible to be a part of that effort.”