Ophthalmologist: Ukrainians relying on resilience amid Russian invasion

Gary Jerkins, MD, a Nashville physician who founded SeaStar Kids in 2010 to help disadvantaged Ukrainian youth, has made 47 trips to Ukraine since 1996 and has hope for its future.

This week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stirred echoes of Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 during a historic virtual appearance before a joint session of the U.S. Congress, making a plea for additional sanctions against Russia, military hardware and a no-fly zone over the country.

While talks continue between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators, no agreement seems imminent and the population continues to find itself in the middle of the Russian onslaught, which is difficult to watch for anyone who has spent time in the country.

Gary Jerkins, MD, is a comprehensive ophthalmologist with Loden Vision Centers in Nashville, Tennessee, and he also operates Advanced Vision Research, where he does clinical trials. He also founded SeaStar Kids, a non-profit organization that helps disadvantaged youth in Ukraine, and has made dozens of trips to the country over the last 26 years.

My first visit to Ukraine was in October of 1996, and one trip led to another and to another, and over the course of time had some interaction with some humanitarian groups and some church affiliations,” he said. “I was kind of bothered by the fact that I would go back year after year and I'd see some of these young people. And if they would grow up and then they would kind of age out and then we wouldn't see them any longer. And so the idea was to create a nonprofit foundation to address the needs of these young people.”

Founded in 2010, SeaStar Kids has helped Ukrainian youth with faith-based programs, educational opportunities and college scholarships. It has offered a summer Bible camp and year-round youth activities. In the wake of the Feb. 24 invasion by Russia, its focus has turned to helping Ukrainian refugees temporarily sheltering in Poland.

Visit SeaStarkids.org to learn more about the organization or to make a donation.

All told, Jerkins has made 47 trips to Ukraine over the last 26 years. He also has assisted ophthalmologists in the country, and it all started when he was invited on a mission trip by his brother, who is a pediatric urologist.

“I was quite impressed at their knowledge base,” he said of the Ukrainian physicians. “They were great ophthalmologists with a great knowledge base. The lack of technology available to them was stunning.”

As a result, Jerkins and others have worked over the years to get the latest technology into the hands of the Ukrainian ophthalmologists to help them provide the best care possible for their patients.

“During one of our first two or three trips, we helped some of the ophthalmologists perform their first intraocular lens implant,” he recounted.

During ensuing trips, they provided phaco machines, microscopes and other equipment to the Ukrainian ophthalmologists.

“We have had a couple of surgery teams to go in and help teach them how to utilize micro machines and new microscopes,” Jerkins noted. “They are remarkably bright and smart ophthalmologists. We just needed to get the technology in their hands.”

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While Jerkins and his colleagues were teaching the Ukrainian ophthalmologists how to use new equipment and surgical techniques, they were also getting a lesson from their pupils.

“We were learning resilience and gratitude,” Jerkins said. “Meeting some of these ophthalmologists who had come out of the former Soviet Union, the idea of trust was just not a part of their vocabulary.”

After one teaching session, a Ukrainian ophthalmologist asked Jerkins why he would go through so much effort to help them.

“I told him ‘I am a physician and you are a physician,’” he said. “We are both in this to help people.”

Even with that explanation, the Ukrainians remained amazed that people would leave the United States, with all its advantages, to come to their country and provide assistance to them.

“I remember during the first trip, I took a small bag of battery powered pen lights,” Jerkins recounted. “I was I was stunned at the at the response because technically nobody had ever given them anything without expecting something in return.”

Jerkins made his most recent trip to Ukraine in October 2021. The mission had evolved and the team worked with international medical students from a range of medical disciplines.

“I always stop in to see my ophthalmology friends and see what they need,” he said. “And of course, everybody always needs something, and we work really hard to do that. So the last couple of years have been around an international medical conference.”

Over the years, Jerkins had been keenly aware of political unrest. In 2008, when Russia annexed a part of Georgia, he was in Lviv, Ukraine, and saw shops throughout the city displaying the Georgian flag in solidarity. In February and March 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

“There has always been that feeling of wondering what is next,” he said.

In the United States, festivals will often feature a dunking booth. Jerkins recalled a street festival in Ukraine that featured an enclosed area. Participants could use a bow to shoot a target with the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even as Putin was moving troops, the thought of an invasion seemed unthinkable.

“I'll be honest, three weeks ago, if you asked me if Russia would invade, I would have said ‘no,’” Jerkins said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen because he's seemingly achieved everything he wanted without firing a shot.”

The ensuing invasion has set off a humanitarian crisis as millions of Ukrainians have fled the country. Jerkins said it has been difficult not knowing how friends are doing. He hasn’t heard from friends in Kiev, or a woman who served as translator on 46 of his 47 trips.

“You know, some of them have just gone dark,” he said. “And let's face it, they are fighting for survival and keeping us up-to-date is probably not on the priority list.”

The emails that Jerkins has received have been tragic, including one he had received from a young cardiologist who had a friend who was a pediatrician in a hospital that was bombed last week in Mariupol.

“You have young children who are dying from dehydration because there is no water,” Jerkins said. “It is appalling. It really is.”

What the future holds is anyone’s guess. During the course of his trips since 1996, Jerkins watched Ukraine blossom into a free and democratic nation as a new generation moved out of the shadows of Lenin and other Soviet leaders to enjoy a free and independent lifestyle. All of that has been shattered by Russian bombs. 

“It is like looking at the History Channel and viewing film from the 1940s,” Jerkins said. “Only this is in color, and I look at that and it's like, this is going to rewind. All the way back 30 years, and they're going to have to rebuild all over again.”

Jerkins remains hopeful that the Russian aggression can be thwarted, but acknowledged a steep price could be paid.

“Sadly, who knows what pieces of the puzzle are going to remain with which to build,” he said. “I don't know the answer to that. I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful that there's going to be something to rebuild, but it's like we are going to be starting all over again. I've had several doctors talk to me in recent days and they have expressed an interest in going back. It is going to be a different mission.”