Duty, Honor and A Love for Humanity: Effingham Surgeons Give Back in Ukraine
Duty, Honor and A Love for Humanity: Effingham Surgeons Give Back in Ukraine
Story by Katrice Williams
Whoever says freedom is free is oblivious to the priceless sacrifices made by kind and courageous people in our world, those who at their own expense demonstrate a selfless consideration for the lives of countless others.
Dr. John Wesley Odom and Metro Surgical
Metro Surgical has been serving the needs of the Effingham community since its doors opened in 1994. Its co-founder Dr. John Wesley Odom attended medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico. He obtained his medical degree and completed his surgical residency at New York Medical College. Dr. Odom completed his Trauma Fellowship at Rutger and is an Associate Professor of Surgery at Medical College of Georgia.
Following medical school, he practiced as a trauma surgeon in Savannah before opening Metro Surgical in Rincon alongside Dr. Mark Blankenship and Dr. Anthony Foley.
Metro Surgical is one of few “single specialty general surgical practices in the state,” specializing in various procedures including: hepatobiliary surgery, colorectal surgery, minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery and advanced robotics. The Metro team of surgeons are driven to make a difference in the lives of patients in the Coastal Empire and beyond.
Additionally, both Dr. Odom and Dr. Foley are former U.S. Army surgeons. Dr. Odom joined the Army in 1990 during the Persian Gulf War. As an Army Major, he was a battalion surgeon, part of the 1st Infantry Division and he was a paratrooper and part of special operations.
“I liked being in the field,” he says.
Likewise, as a highly decorated officer, Dr. Foley engaged in several tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a special operations surgeon.
Dr. Joey Christmas, who is also a surgeon on the Metro Surgical team, is a West Point graduate. He was a U.S. Army combat engineer before completing his medical degree.
A Call to Duty
This past spring, the three surgeons—all having a plethora of former military expertise and acting of their own volition—traveled to aid crisis relief efforts in Ukraine; they could not ignore the tragic circumstances plaguing so many there.
“We wanted to show those soldiers that there are a lot of people over here that support them,” Dr. Odom says.
April marked the start of their two-month stay in the active war zone. The doctors first arrived in Poland, where they were met and accompanied by retired Special Forces medics.
“We walked across the border near Rzeszow, Poland. Travel was very difficult there, but [members] of Special Forces are pretty good guys to have with you when you’re traveling somewhere like that,” he says.
Dr. Odom saw the devastation all around him as he traveled through zones that had been ravaged by heavy artillery.
“Mykolaiv was the final city we came to behind Ukrainian lines. It had been heavily shelled. About half the population had evacuated,” he says.
While Dr. Odom learned that he would work right there in the city at one of its large general hospitals, Drs. Foley and Christmas worked at a smaller hospital with fewer medical professionals and resources. That hospital was in the town of Kurakhove, near the Donbas area, only five miles from the Russian line.
“I was about 25 miles from the Russian line. They were five miles from it where most of the fighting was going on. The Donbas was the heart of the beast. They were at a smaller county hospital with three Ukrainian surgeons. They were extremely busy because they were far more short-handed there,” Dr. Odom says.
No one could imagine the environment all the surgeons had to acclimate to. Though he was uncertain of what to expect from one moment to the next, Dr. Odom remained committed to providing patients with the best medical care possible.
“There were air raids every day—every day. Artillery was being fired all night long. It sounded like thunder booms all around,” he says.
Most of the injuries that the Ukrainian troops had endured were the result of shrapnel wounds from artillery.
“We took care of a few civilians, but most were military casualties,” Dr. Odom says.
Most of the Ukrainian surgeons had been trained very differently from surgeons in the USA. If that is not enough, imagine the challenge of performing a task as delicate and intricate as a surgical procedure while not understanding the language being spoken. Though there was a translator, the language barrier was undeniably problematic.
“Most of the surgeons there were Russian-trained. It was a difficult system to get the hang of, and the language barrier made it more difficult,” Dr. Odom says.
Dr. Odom lived at the hospital, and he found the conditions to be unimaginable. Many people, including the hospital staff, had moved into the hospital because they had nowhere to go. Even as a skilled surgeon, Dr. Odom was challenged to the core, but he refused to be overwhelmed and overcome by it all.
“The hospital was old and outdated. It was like turning back the clock about 40 years. The windows were broken out. Food was very sparse. Everybody in the hospital lived off boiled cabbage for about two weeks. I thank God that my wife packed a bunch of protein bars for me. There was no running water. Nurses would bring in big buckets of water each day from who knows where. I did have some bottled water to drink,” he says.
Dr. Odom explains that the hospital budget was about $4 million dollars for the year. To put that in perspective, that’s about the budget for services at a Savannah hospital for one day!
He noticed that a major hurdle he had to overcome involved gaining the Ukrainians’ trust. Though they wanted his help, many were very proud, even in spite of the circumstances surrounding them.
“It took a while to gain acceptance. They were very proud—extremely proud of their system and extremely turf-conscious. Eventually, I was able to win them over,” he says.
Phenomenally, the surgeons would not hesitate to go back to help in the future. In fact, they would have welcomed the idea of staying longer; nevertheless, they had to come back home.
“We tried to give them as much time as we could. We were happy to do it. We would love to go back. We personally benefited far more than the people we helped. All three of us have families, so there was limited time we could spend. It also placed a financial burden on the practice for all of us to be gone,” Dr. Odom says.
The Real Heroes
All the surgeons are beyond grateful to their loving families who understood the dire nature of the circumstances and offered their unyielding support. Dr. Odom loves and appreciates his wife Amanda, who has been right by his side.
“Our families are the big heroes. More than my sacrifice, it was my family’s sacrifice,” he says. He remembers being unable to talk to Amanda for 10 days upon arriving in Ukraine, as he learned that Russian officials could intercept calls. She did not know where he was or how he was doing during that time. He was eventually able to purchase a burner phone to call her.
All the doctors have immense gratitude for St. Joseph’s Candler Hospital and Sisters of Mercy. Both organizations generously sent thousands of dollars of supplies with them to Ukraine to support the cause.
It should be noted that without obtaining proper legal documentation and help from elected officials, the trip would have been incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Dr. Odom extends a special thanks to Congressman Buddy Carter and Congressman John Burns.
“Both were instrumental in helping us with the logistics of getting there and helping us get the paperwork we needed,” he says.
Though there are numerous domestic issues this country presently faces, Dr. Odom hopes that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine will not go disregarded.
All three surgeons—Dr. John Wesley Odom, alongside Dr. Anthony Foley and Dr. Joey Christmas—have used their phenomenal gifts and talents in their mission to be altruistic ambassadors of doing good in the lives of others.