The refugee crisis in Ukraine is the latest mission for a CNN hero, who leads teams of mobile doctors who respond to global disasters.

Editor’s note: Do you know someone who inspires you? Click here to nominate them as CNN Heroes.


People around the world have been moved by the horrific images of distressed Ukrainians fleeing their homes after the Russian invasion began in late February. But the scope of the situation can be difficult to grasp.

More than a quarter of Ukraine’s population has been uprooted since February 24, and more than 4.6 million people have fled the country, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It is the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II, according to the UN.

More than 4,500 miles away in Anchorage, Alaska, paramedic-turned-nurse Teresa Gray stepped up to help. Late last month, through her nonprofit organization Mobile Medics International, she and several volunteers traveled to Galati, Romania, where they provided care and comfort to hundreds of Ukrainians.

“These people have lost everything: their homes, their families, their country. I knew the hardships they are going through,” Gray said. “Because we’ve done it before, in other countries, I knew (we could) make a difference for them.”

After creating his nonprofit six years ago, Gray has sent medical teams to natural disasters and refugee crises in the US and around the world. Their organization’s work is done by volunteers, with travel and supplies funded by donations and assistance from other non-profit organizations.

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 capable of going to remote areas, a need he recognized after working with other groups.

“There are amazing people doing amazing work out there, but they’re very stationary. They come in, they set up, and patients come to them. I really saw the need for a basically ambulance-type response,” he said.

When your group members deploy, they are ready to be fully self-sustaining. This ensures they can work for days at a time without taxing the local infrastructure.

“We can bring our own food, our own water, our own sleeping quarters,” he said. “We’re basically trying to carry an ambulance in a backpack.”

When they are deployed, it is usually 72 hours after a disaster to fill the gap before larger groups are fully operational. Their missions usually last between seven and ten days.

But the Ukraine crisis required a different kind of response. Four days after the invasion, one of his volunteers from England began driving along Ukraine’s western border to assess where his help would be most needed. Ultimately, they determined that Romania was overwhelmed by refugees, but lacked the infrastructure that other countries, such as Poland, had.

Going to the border of a war zone raised other concerns.

“This is the most dangerous mission we’ve ever done,” Gray told CNN before his departure from the United States. “We’re taking the necessary chemical warfare medicine, in case chemical weapons are deployed. But honestly, the heroes are my volunteers who were begging to go.”

Gray’s team was told of hundreds of refugees on a college campus who had very limited medical care. When they arrived at the Galati campus on March 26, Gray was shocked.

“What we expected to see were large groups of people housed in tent cities or in large buildings, and they are actually housing these refugees in individual dormitories,” he said. “They have food, they have shelter, but it is still a significant group of refugees. The trauma is the same.”

Gray’s team occupied a 24-hour clinic and went from room to room, attending to the 300 refugees with the help of interpreters. The problems they dealt with ranged from a flu outbreak among children to chronic health problems in the elderly, which posed a particular challenge.

“Now they exist in a country that doesn’t speak your language and doesn’t use the same medicine,” he said. “So we are trying to find out what your underlying condition is, what medicine you took in Ukraine and what is the equivalent in Romania.”

The group also helped organize a warehouse of donated goods, delivered supplies and served other nearby refugees. When a woman, whose elderly mother had been treated for health issues, called for help, Gray’s volunteers literally went the extra mile.

“She asked us if we would drive her to the border so (she) and her son could see Ukraine, maybe for the last time,” Gray said. “He asked us for help, so we gave it to him.”

CNN Hero Teresa Gray

This interaction embodies Gray’s approach to his work.

“It’s not just fixing your broken arm or giving you medicine. It’s making that human connection,” he said. “Human suffering has no borders. People are people … and love is love.”

CNN’s Kathleen Toner spoke with Gray about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: How did you find your way into the medical field?

Teresa Gray: Growing up in Michigan, my godmother was a paramedic instructor and she would drag me to the firehouse and make me a mock victim. I would have to be bandaged and splinted and all sorts of things while they practiced their skills. I loved it. After high school, I came across an ad for an EMT and thought, “I’ll give it a shot,” and it all made sense to me. I knew at that moment that I had found my career.

I started as an EMT, became a paramedic. I eventually moved to Alaska and ended up being a critical care flight paramedic. Our cities are hundreds of miles apart, so our ambulances are Lear planes. We fly into the villages, pick people up and bring them back to the big cities. I have picked up patients on dog sleds, with snow machines; everything we had to do to make it possible, I’ve tried all the different avenues of paramedics. I have loved them all. I am now a registered nurse, but I still have my paramedic license.

CNN: What led you to get involved in disaster response work?

Grey: By the end of 2015, I had semi-retired. I was a stay at home mom watching TV and I saw the 3 year old Syrian boy on the beach in Lesbos face down in the water. I hadn’t really been aware of what was happening in Greece or the Syrian refugee crisis. So I decided I would go to Greece and see if I could help. It changed life. These people were getting off the boats, wet, hypothermic. It was heartbreaking. But I made a difference to people.

CNN: In addition to natural and humanitarian disasters, your group also conducts medical sustainability missions.

Grey: We will find chronically medically underserved communities and ask them to commit to five years to build their own medical infrastructure and support them during that time. We have done this with the Philippines with great success. We usually go twice a year and give them the equipment, supplies, medicine they need and ongoing training. And then we also advise and support them through telemedicine.

When we started going to a remote island in the Philippines, a large population of cleft palate babies were born, simply because their diet was not good. After three years, we eliminated cleft palate babies from this island by giving prenatal vitamins. That’s all it took, but that’s all it took. So that’s what we do. No matter what you need, if we can provide it, we will.

Do you want to get involved? Take a look the Mobile Medics International website and see how to help.

To donate to Mobile Medics International via GoFundMe, click here

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