‘We were on pins and needles’ – Colleagues help nurse extract family members from Ukraine

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The small town of Bemidji, Minnesota may seem far removed from the scenes that unfold every day in Ukraine. But at a Sanford Health walk-in clinic in Bemidji, a nurse knows firsthand that a war on a continent can be felt across an ocean.

Olha Finnelly is an outpatient RPN from Ukraine and her family still lives in the town of Dnipro, about 250 miles southeast of Kyiv, the country’s capital. When the invasion of his home country began in late February, his life changed.

“I was just crying every day at work. I couldn’t believe this was happening,” Finnelly said. “I could never have imagined that big brother Russia would attack and start bombing and killing people. This is not a war that is happening somewhere in foreign territory. It’s happening right next to us.

“We had to help”

Finnelly’s clinic colleagues noticed that their friend was distressed and often asked her about her family.

“She would mention that she talked to them once in a while, and then the sirens would go off in the background, and she had to hang up the phone and wait for the next time she could talk to them,” said Erin Petrowske, IA and supervisor of the Bemidji clinic.

Kim Schulz, a medical laboratory scientist at Sanford Bemidji, said they all knew Finnelly was from Ukraine.

“We were like, ‘How is your family?’ One day, all of a sudden, it wasn’t working very well. Very tearful. She was trying to get them out (from Ukraine). When we all heard that, we had to help,” Schulz said. “So we did everything we could to help her get the funds and everything she needed.”

Leaving Ukraine

As the war continued, Finnelly’s father and brother-in-law decided to stay in Ukraine and help in any way they could. But her mother, sister and 3-year-old niece prepared to leave their home.

Finnelly's clinic workers helped extract her family from Ukraine.

“They decided to take a train to Lviv, which is the biggest city in the western part of Ukraine, closer to Poland,” Finnelly said.

They traveled 22 hours by train, sharing a room designed to sleep four at a time, with 16 people.

“They had no luggage with them,” Finnelly said. “The only possessions they had were backpacks. They brought underpants for the little one. Some snacks, because you are not sure if you can get food. And my sister was able to get her laptop because she’s trying to keep working online.

When this was done, they took a small bus to the Polish border, eventually traveling to Krakow. Luckily for the family, they had planned to visit Olha in the near future, so they had already approved pre-war US travel visas. Finnelly booked them plane tickets to Minneapolis. The cost: approximately $3,000, all raised by his colleagues. After five days of travel, Finnelly’s family arrived in the United States.

“We were all on pins and needles waiting for the last word from her that everyone was safe,” Petrowske said. “And then when we saw that picture of her and her mom and her sister and her niece, and just the look of relief in her eyes, it was so amazing.”

“Everyone jumped up and tried to help her. And we helped. We got the women out,” Schulz said.

Still together

“Right now I’m smiling because yes, I understand how stressful it is always in Ukraine – and it’s kind of selfish – but the three most important people in my life, they’re here around the table “, Finnelly said.

Finnelly’s mother, Liana Taradaiko, her sister Ksusha Zarubina and her niece, Masha Zarubina, have been in Bemidji for a few weeks now. Taradaiko prepares meals for the family and has prepared pierogi for the clinic staff in Bemidji. Zarubina works every day from around 3 a.m. to keep her job and stay on Ukrainian time. And Masha? Well, Masha is playing with Play-Doh, painting at the dining room table, and dancing like a 3-year-old, wearing some of the clothes that were also donated by Finnelly’s co-workers.

“In our Ukrainian language we have this saying. “Tell me who your friend is, and I can tell you who you are. I am so happy with my colleagues. (The) Sanford family in Bemidji… we really are like a real family here,” Finnelly said.

A war is raging in Ukraine, but in a living room in Bemidji, Minnesota, USA, a family smiles, happy to be together again.

Jason Anschutz
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