According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, since February 24, more than a quarter of Ukraine’s population has left their homes, and more than 4.6 million people have left the country. According to the UN, this is the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world since World War II.
“These people have lost everything – their homes, their family members, their country. I knew the hardships they were going through,” Gray said. “Because we’ve done this before in other countries, I knew we (could) make a difference to them.”
Since starting her non-profit organization six years ago, Gray has sent medical teams to natural disasters and refugee crises in the US and around the world. All of her organization’s work is done by volunteers, and travel and supplies are funded by donations and assistance from other nonprofits.
Gray says the group has provided free medical care to more than 30,000 people on five continents.
Gray specializes in sending small, mobile teams of four to eight licensed medical volunteers to remote areas, a need she recognized after working with other groups.
“There are wonderful people doing wonderful work, but they are very immobile. They come, set up, and patients come to them.
When the members of her group are deployed, they are ready for complete self-sufficiency. This ensures that they can operate for several days without straining the local infrastructure.
“We can bring our food, our water, our bed,” she said. “We try to take mostly ambulances in a backpack.”
When they deploy, it is usually within 72 hours of a disaster that the gap is filled before larger teams are fully operational. Their missions usually last from seven to ten days.
But the Ukrainian crisis demanded a different response. Four days after the invasion, one of her English volunteers began moving along Ukraine’s western border to assess where their help would be most needed. They eventually determined that Romania was overflowing with refugees but lacking the infrastructure that other countries such as Poland had.
The move to the border of the war zone raised other concerns.
“This is the most dangerous mission we have ever undertaken,” Gray told CNN before leaving the US. “We are taking the necessary medicine for chemical warfare in case chemical weapons are deployed. But honestly, the heroes are my volunteers who begged to leave.”
Gray’s team was told about the hundreds of refugees on campus who had very limited medical care. When they arrived at the Galati campus on March 26, Gray was surprised.
“We expected to see large groups of people housed in tent cities or in large buildings, but in fact they are placing these refugees in separate dorm rooms,” she said. “They have food, they have shelter, but they are still a large group of refugees. The injury is the same.
Gray’s team staffed a 24-hour clinic and went from room to room caring for 300 refugees with the help of interpreters. The problems they treated ranged from flu outbreaks among children to chronic health problems in the elderly, which presented a particular problem.
“Now they exist in a country that doesn’t speak your language and doesn’t use the same medicine,” she said. “So we are trying to figure out what your underlying disease is, what medications you took in Ukraine and what are the equivalents in Romania.”
The group also helped set up a warehouse for donated goods, delivered supplies, and took care of other nearby refugees. When one woman, whose elderly mother was being treated for health problems, asked for help, Gray’s volunteers literally went above and beyond.
“She asked us if we would take her to the border so (she) and her son could see Ukraine for maybe one last time,” Gray said. “She asked us for help and we helped her.”
This interaction epitomizes Gray’s approach to her work.
“It’s not just about fixing a broken arm or giving you medicine. It’s about making that human connection,” she said. “Human suffering has no boundaries. People are people…and love is love.”
CNN’s Kathleen Toner spoke to Gray about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: How did you find your path in medicine?
Teresa Gray: My godmother, who grew up in Michigan, was a paramedic instructor, and she dragged me into the firehouse and made me pose as a victim. I would have to bandage, splint, and do whatever it takes while they practice their skills. I like it. After school, I came across an ad for an ambulance and thought, “I’ll try,” and it all made sense to me. At that moment, I knew that I had found my career.
Started as a paramedic, became a paramedic. I eventually moved to Alaska and became a paramedic in the intensive care unit. Our cities are hundreds of miles apart, so our ambulances are training planes. We fly to villages, pick up people and bring them back to the big cities. I’ve taken patients on dog sleds, snowplows, all we had to do to make it happen, I’ve tried all the possibilities of paramedicine. I loved them all. Now I am a registered nurse, but I still have a paramedic license.
CNN: What led you to get involved in disaster relief?
CNN: In addition to natural disasters and humanitarian disasters, your group is also on medical resilience missions.
Grey: We find communities that are chronically medically underserved and ask them to dedicate five years to building their own medical infrastructure, and we support them during that time. We have done this with the Philippines very successfully. We usually come twice a year and give them the equipment, supplies, medicines they need and ongoing training. And then we also mentor them and support them through telemedicine.
When we first went to a remote island in the Philippines, a huge number of children were born with cleft palate simply because their nutrition was poor. Within three years, we got rid of cleft palate babies on this island by distributing prenatal vitamins. That’s all it takes, but that’s what it takes. That’s what we do. No matter what you need, if we can provide it for you, we will.