Jan 26, 2024

Building partnerships to empower emerging healthcare leaders in Ukraine

Dr. Vanessa Fedirko, a first-year surgery resident at Kyiv Medical University, observing a mission led by the Canada Ukraine Surgical Aid Program.
Dr. Vanessa Fedirko (right), a first-year surgery resident at Kyiv Medical University, observing a mission led by the Canada Ukraine Surgical Aid Program. (Photo: Andrey Syrko)

Amidst the challenges of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, Ukrainians now find themselves in an even more daunting situation — a war that has devastated their country’s infrastructure and created obstacles in accessing essential resources.

In an effort to support young emerging health leaders in Ukraine through collaborative research and educational programs, the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine created the Temerty Ukraine-Toronto Education and Collaboration Fund.

Through this grant, Dr. Michelle Hladunewich, Professor in the Department of Medicine and Physician-in-Chief at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, has been awarded funding for her initiative in partnership with Dr. Vanessa Fedirko, a first-year surgery resident at Kyiv Medical University.

“During Covid-19 and now the war in Ukraine, our medical education has been put on hold and we’ve only been able to learn online during some periods of time, which has been challenging as becoming a doctor is impossible to do without hands-on practice,” says Dr. Fedirko. “We have adapted and are stronger for it, but many of us feel this has impacted our ability to master required skills and knowledge.”

To help her fellow medical trainees better develop their hard and soft skills, Dr. Fedirko started MedRise, a Ukrainian platform for training and networking in medical and related fields.

This new collaboration between Drs. Hladunewich and Fedirko will aim to further build on this concept of collaborative learning. The project will begin with a comprehensive needs assessment to identify areas where Ukrainian medical students and residents require additional training and support. Acknowledging the difficulties Ukrainians currently face in pursuing training opportunities outside of their country, the next phase will involve delivering remote and in-person learning opportunities led by physicians from the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, establishing connections that will pave the way for long-term collaborations between the two countries.

“What really impresses me about these young, enthusiastic Ukrainian students is that they’ve managed to get thousands of students, residents and doctors together to interact and learn from each other,” says Dr. Hladunewich. “We need to help the next generation of physicians in Ukraine as they are currently dealing with some very scary public health challenges, such as war casualties and multidrug-resistant bacteria. We can’t teach them to be doctors from Toronto but we have expertise at the university and can certainly conduct learning modules in areas that are most of need.”

Through the Canada Ukraine Surgical Aid Program (CUSAP), Dr. Hladunewich has participated in several surgical missions to Poland to provide medical consultations for patients with complex traumatic defects who would otherwise not receive treatment. As part of this new partnership, this team plans to return to conduct hands-on courses and in-person seminars delivered by both surgeons and internists.

“I first met Dr. Fedirko during one of CUSAP’s missions when she came to observe our work and she told me about the network she’s built of young medical professionals in Ukraine,” she says. “That’s where the idea started that we could do something more to help them.”

“I’m a second-generation Ukrainian born in Canada and feel a very strong duty to Ukraine, and I want for Ukrainians to live a free and prosperous life, for Dr. Fedirko to get the education she wants and the Ukrainian people to have the healthcare that they need,” Dr. Hladunewich says.

Julia Malaniy, a Program Manager at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre who is also of Ukrainian decent, is another individual involved in organizing missions with CUSAP.

“On one of our missions, a patient said to us that it's not just about receiving the help – it's knowing that halfway across the world, there's people that care and are willing to contribute,” says Julia. “That’s why I think these kinds of partnerships are essential.”

Dr. Fedirko says she hopes that this project will help establish a strong sense of community between medical professionals in Canada and Ukraine.

While so many in Ukraine are busy defending their freedom, we can let them know there are countries that will be there after the war to continue to help them develop and grow so they don’t feel alone,” says Dr. Hladunewich. “I foresee working with Ukrainian physicians for the rest of my career.