Bringing hope to soldiers and civilians in war-torn Ukraine was a life-changing experience for Dr. Mathew Brace, but he isn't done yet.
The Guelph doctor, who owns Facial Plastics with his wife Latitia, returned on Oct. 22 after performing over 150 procedures on 32 patients.
“I’m very much physically back in Canada, but my mind is still in Ukraine. It was very emotional. I had some very memorable patients that I will never forget.” Brace said.
Brace was part of a group of 13 medical specialist volunteers with Face the Future Foundation.
“They were just so grateful that we would even consider coming. The biggest fear of every doctor, nurse and patient that we interacted with, said that the world has forgotten them and that they feel they are on their own.”
Brace said the need is massive, with not enough people trained to do facial reconstruction surgeries in Ukraine.
“We worked hard. We treated many people and did a lot of teaching which was really the main thrust of the mission, to teach locally,” Brace said.
On Oct. 14, Brace boarded a plane for Poland, followed by a 10-hour bus ride to the Ukrainian village of Ivano-Frankivsk.
“I was not afraid at any point on the way in. There was maybe a feeling of heightened alertness when we first got there. We got up on the Sunday morning and taught at the local university in Ivano-Frankivsk, two hours south of Lviv,” Brace said.
The university hosted a symposium with about 500 surgeons in attendance.
“This was also live streamed to other surgeons in Ukraine. That night, an air raid siren went off at about 3 a.m. We all had an app on our phone that alerts you if there was an incoming missile. Our phones went off, then the air raid sirens, and then the hotel loudspeaker saying, ‘proceed to the bomb shelter’,” Brace said.
“We spent the night in the basement of a theatre. We were not in danger. It was a precaution.”
Brace later heard that 11 drones and two rockets over Ukraine were shot down in the region next to Ivano-Frankivsk.
“That was the end of that. There were no more air raids and no more worry about anything coming at us for the rest of the trip,” Brace said.
“That was definitely a very real awakening before we were able to start our clinical work. This is what people were living with, everyday.”
Brace helped to perform procedures on 31 soldiers and one civilian.
“We were able to help one young woman who had a childhood tumour in her eye, had it removed, and then had an injected implant that we were able to replace,” Brace said.
Brace said it goes beyond physical appearances as many injuries are the result of blasts to the jaw, eye, or nose.
“There was a gentleman in his 40s who had a temporal bone fracture from an explosion. His skull was fractured. His facial nerve was injured and torn. The left side of his face was completely paralyzed,” Brace said.
“He couldn’t actively smile, but after the procedure, his lips were in the right position. His eye could close. He was so overwhelmed, happy, and thankful, that he gave me two patches from his uniform. He was tearful and hugged me,” Brace said.
Brace said there are many more similar heartfelt stories.
“People were just so happy. We gave them hope. In Ukraine, they do not have that level of expertise. We came and we were able to teach a lot of basic reconstructive techniques and we got their surgeons to do it. We would do the first one, and then, we would watch them,” he said.
Face the Future Foundation was launched in 1996 by internationally renowned head and neck surgeon Dr. Peter Adamson.
The foundation addresses the urgent medical needs of young people in developing countries who require life-altering, reconstructive surgery to treat highly complex facial deformities caused by birth defects, trauma and cancerous tumours.
“Dr. Adamson had come back from the mission in Ukraine with the first team. He was 'gung-ho' to go back and wanted to bring a Canadian team. So, he called me and asked me if I would consider coming and to help build a team,” Brace said.
“We ended up with an amazing team. Everyone had their strengths. We had lots of things to do on those patients and we had three operating rooms to work in, so it was kind of like a tag team.”
Brace said the team had to be efficient with the time they had.
“Having a team show up, to teach and help them, it meant the world to these patients. And there were a lot of tears. One patient, his name was Andre. He was in his late 20s. He had both arms shot off and both eyes blinded by shrapnel. He had a massive facial scar and was missing a part of the bone in his cheek and left eye socket,” Brace said.
“We did a big surgery on him to reconstruct his eye socket and cheek, remove the scar and bring in new tissue so that he could eat and be fitted for a prosthetic for his eye. He was a phenomenal man. He was still so positive and full of hope. His wife, Alina, was even more so as she was by his side trying to feed him. It gives you pause. You stop and think about the biggest struggle in life, and this man can’t feed himself. That sticks with me, for sure.”
Brace is already planning another visit to Ukraine.
“I talk to the surgical team there everyday. I am on a text group with the team and we have video chats as well to check in on everyone and follow up. I am planning to go back,” Brace said.
“The team that I went with, everyone is on board to go back in October (next year) to do a repeat and build on what we started.”
Brace said the need for help continues to grow in Ukraine.
“The big fear is that they feel that they have been forgotten by the rest of the world, especially now with all that is happening in Gaza,” he said.
“Anyone that helps in any way is so appreciated There are organizations such as Patients of Ukraine which is a non-for-profit that helps out people like Alina to help care for her husband. These are the sorts of things I want to become more involved with, and help bring awareness to these organizations.”
Brace said he feels compelled to do all he can.
“The experience does still weigh heavy on me,” Brace said. “To think how many others are out there like Andre, who maybe don’t have a loving spouse and are on their own. What happens to them?”