Ukrainian-born ophthalmologist staying positive for family remaining in war-torn country

Anton Vlasov, DO, moved to the United States in 2001 at the age of 14, but since Russia invaded his homeland last month, the safety of family still living in Ukraine has weighed heavy on his mind.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, lives were shattered as millions of residents began an exodus out of the country, and it sparked concern among many Ukrainian-Americans for family still living in the now war-torn nation.

For Anton Vlasov, DO, an ophthalmologist with Pinehurst Surgical Clinic in Pinehurst, North Carolina, the start of the war brought back memories and raised concern for family, including aunts, uncles and cousins, still living in eastern Ukraine, close to the front lines of the Russian aggression.

You know, until it happened, I didn't think it would,” he said of the Feb. 24 invasion. “I honestly did not think that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin was going to be so bold and do that. My thoughts were this was a military flex to get what he wants, to get Ukraine to say it will never join NATO, you know, to get his demands without actually causing war. And when it happened, when I saw the news, I saw it as the day World War III had started.”

Vlasov grew up in Poltava in central Ukraine. His father had been killed in an automobile accident in the early 1990s and he grew up with his mother. They came to the United States in the summer of 2001, joining family already living in Michigan.

“If we had waited two more months, I might not be living here today,” he said. “Two months after we came here, the Sept. 11 attacks happened and immigration policies changed.”

Vlasov knew from an early age that he wanted to help people, and he became fascinated with the intricacy of the human eye.

“I was attracted to being able to help someone and they can often have immediate results with improved vision,” he said. “That moment when someone sees clearly for the first time is always so inspiring. I enjoy giving that gift to patients.”

Vlasov, who became a US Citizen and served in the US Army, specializes in glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, uveitis, dry eye and blepharitis.

He has enjoyed a successful career, and he and his wife last year welcomed a daughter. A proud father, he enjoyed Skype sessions with family in Ukrainewith maternal aunts, uncles and cousins.

“Most of them are on the eastern side of the Ukraine, closest to the action that's going on right now,” Vlasov explained, “A majority of them have gone into smaller villages for safety.”

One cousin and her husband are maxillofacial surgeons were living near Kiev, the capital.

“When this whole thing started, they left their home to be safer somewhere,’ Vlasov said. “But they're still pretty close to Kiev, maybe about 30 miles or so. So they definitely hear the air sirens going on every night. I think that happens. And then they hear gunfire periodically. And because they're surgeons, they volunteer at whatever local nearest hospitals to help with the wounded and that kind of stuff.”

For weeks, the Russian military began to amass at the border with Ukraine. On Feb. 24, the Russian military began its unprovoked invasion into Ukraine, and the assault has not let up. While Vlasov remains hopeful that the Russian aggression will not lead to a world war, he admits it is a scary time, not only for Ukraine, but the entire world. Amid the Russian assault, his thoughts naturally turned to family.

“I was very nervous for all my family and scared for them, so I immediately started,” he said. “Luckily, we live in this day and age where everybody has a cell phone and WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, so we, we communicate relatively on a daily basis.”

However, the fighting has impacted communication with family, increasing concern.

“Now we at least touch base,” he said, noting that he looks forward to communication to know family is safe.

While family is remaining safe, the weeks-old war is already having an impact on their mental health.

“You're constantly in this state of fear,” Vlasov said. “When the air sirens are going off, everybody's running into the basement with holding their pets and children close. When we Skype yesterday with one of my aunts, she just could nof stop crying because she could’t believe this was happening. And I am over here feeling helpless. You know, because there is nothing I can do to relieve that situation.”

Another aunt lives in a town near the Russian border now occupied by Russian troops. Vlasov said they haven’t had contact with them in more than a week.

Rather than feeling helpless while family in Ukraine lives under a cloud of uncertainty, Vlasov and his family in the United States continue to do what they can to provide assistance to their relatives.

“I am fortunate to work for a great organization, Pinehurst Surgical Clinic,” he said. “They are working closely with Samaritan's Purse, the humanitarian organization to donate medical supplies. Samaritan's Purse is flying over to Ukraine to set up a field hospital. I think they've already had one plane take off and another plane is leaving soon.”

On March 14, satellite images showed that Russian forces were getting closer to Kyiv, with ground forces about 15 miles from the center of the capital. While war rages in Ukraine, Vlasov noted that the Russian population is being misled by its government, told it is a military action to rid Ukraine of Nazis, even though its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish.

I think one crazy thing about this whole thing is a lot of Russians don't know the true reality of what's happening,” he said. “Because a lot of their media is government run, it is their propaganda messages going out there, so to most Russians, this is not happening. I wish there was a way for them to open their eyes to see that they have a Hitler in there, you know, a new 21st century Hitler leading their country.”

Vlasov remains hopeful that his homeland can fend off the Russian aggression.

“I sure hope so,” he said. “You know, I think they're going to need help. You know, and they clearly do, whether it's military supplies or the no fly zone, as I think everybody, all the Ukrainians are asking for it.”

Russia also has warned that it now considers arms shipments to Ukraine as “legitimate targets” for the military, likely to raise concerns over a potential escalation of the conflict. This could become a hurdle for NATO countries providing military aid to the country. Calls for a no-fly zone also have been met with resistance. With his military background, Vlasov understands why a no-fly zone over Ukraine is not likely to happen.

“I know the fear of escalation, if we create a no-fly zone now, we have to shut down Russian planes,” he said. “Now the Russians are going to escalate and eventually that could lead to nuclear war. Right, right. Which now the whole the whole world's involved.”

While many Russians are led to believe a false narrative, for Ukrainians living under the scepter of war, death is death.

“I was talking to my aunt yesterday. She said whether it's nuclear war or regular war, we are dying either way,” he said. “And what do I answer to that? I certainly understand, the hesitation.”