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‘We’re Not Powerless’: One Woman’s Resolve To Help the Ukraine Health Service

Jul 04, 2023

SWI is the ten-language online service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR for the international audience interested in Switzerland.

The war in Ukraine has triggered an outpouring of generosity among people in Switzerland. One resident in Basel, Helen Ramscar, has raised enough money to send ambulances 2250 kilometres across Europe to Ukraine.

By Geraldine Wong Sak Hoi

It was March 9, 2022, as news of a devastating attack on the Ukrainian coastal city of Mariupol flashed on Helen Ramscar's television screen. The image of a heavily pregnant woman, Irina Kalinina, badly injured and being carried on a stretcher through the rubble of a maternity hospital, appeared as Ramscar fed her five-month-old daughter. It left a lasting impression on the Basel resident.

"I kept seeing Irina – I could imagine her unborn baby," says Ramscar. "Everything about it was just so horrendous." Both Kalinina and her baby perished.

"I thought of [Kalinina] and what she would have needed [after the attack]," Ramscar adds. "And I thought, ‘We’re going to get an ambulance to Ukraine.’"

Within days, the 40-year-old had set up an online aid appeal, Ambulance Relief. Initially her goal was to send one ambulance to Ukraine. Fifteen months on, Ramscar has raised nearly CHF110,000 (US$120,700) and bought not just emergency vehicles, but various types of medical equipment as well. She's donated them all to the struggling Ukrainian health system, which Russian forces have been accused of deliberately targeting as part of their military strategy. By the end of 2022, over 700 attacks on health facilities were recorded, including 65 on ambulances.

"Almost every day we are losing not only lives, but also technical know-how and material," says Artem Rybchenko, the former Ukrainian ambassador to Switzerland. SWI reached him on the telephone the day after a hospital that received equipment from Ambulance Relief was hit by a rocket.

Acts of generosity like Ramscar's, he says, offer Ukrainians "a sense of solidarity that we are not alone with our problems". Since the war began, the Swiss have opened their homes to Ukrainian refugees and donated over CHF130 million (US$143 million) alone to Swiss Solidarity, the charitable arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SWI's parent company), for relief work in Ukraine.

Ramscar, a Northern Ireland native who moved to the Alpine nation with her family in 2019, had no prior experience buying ambulances – in recent years, she has written books on British security and previously worked in the private office of the former Prince of Wales, now King Charles.

All Ramscar knew was that she wanted to help. Along with other parents at her children's school, she’d already been collecting medicine and first-aid supplies for Ukraine. The day of the Mariupol attack, after putting her daughter to bed, she opened her laptop and typed three words into a search engine: "Buy ambulance Switzerland".

Eventually, she found a garage in canton Solothurn, 60km south of Basel, that sold second-hand ambulances. ACT Special Car Center recommended a Mercedes diesel Sprinter, because replacement parts for this model are more readily available in Eastern Europe. They also offered to drive the ambulance to the Ukrainian embassy in Bern.

Then Ramscar contacted the embassy, where officials could help with paperwork: insurance for the vehicle, a technical inspection and export procedures, plus getting the ambulance to its final destination in Ukraine, which the embassy itself would choose based on need.

With these pieces in place, Ramscar created a donation webpage and set up an appeal on Facebook.

Soon friends and strangers alike were rallying around the cause. Pledges big and small arrived from the community at the International School Basel, which Ramscar's two older children attend, and from people in Switzerland and abroad.

Within two weeks, Ramscar had raised enough money – CHF18,000 (US$19,800) – to buy the Mercedes ambulance and pay for repairs so it was in mint condition. Then came the moment of truth: on March 23, 2022, Ramscar found herself waiting anxiously in front of the Ukrainian embassy. In ten minutes – at 11am – the garage was to deliver the vehicle.

"I had this horrendous sense of – I’ve raised expectations all around me. What am I going to do if it doesn't turn up?" Ramscar recounts. "I stood there, throat just closing hard, and I could hear my pulse and temples throbbing." What came next was unforgettable for Ramscar.

"When it drove around the corner, it was just an incredible moment," she says. "That people who have never met can come together in such a smart and kind way to have an impact somewhere thousands of miles away – it was thrilling."

Photo Credit: Helen Ramscar

The ambassador came up to her. "This is so needed," Rybchenko told Ramscar, who did not bat an eye and told him she would raise money again for more ambulances. "As many as you can send," was his reply.

By August 2022, Ramscar had organised a total of four ambulances to be delivered to the embassy, which handled the logistics of getting them to Ukraine.

More than a year into the war, ambulances remain the most sought-after item by Ukrainian health providers, says the Swiss foreign ministry. But the types of ambulances suitable for Ukraine are rare. In April 2023 the canton of Basel-City and the city of Zurich donated five second-hand ambulances to local NGOs in Ukraine, most of them sourced from the Netherlands.

But Ramscar's efforts didn't end once the supply of ambulances within her budget evaporated. She has fielded requests for other medical equipment mainly through Ukrainians in Switzerland she has befriended and who are familiar with the needs back home. These have included a spirometry to diagnose pneumonia and an audiology machine to check for hearing damage caused by shelling, plus over two dozen generators and power stations.

"I can't even describe the emotions of a doctor I met several days after I delivered an electrosurgical unit Helen bought for us," Yevhen Kalenda, a volunteer in Dnipro, eastern Ukraine, writes in an email. "He was so excited and said he could only dream of having it in his operating room. With this machine he was able to do several surgeries already."

Machines like these save lives but are usually too expensive to buy or take too long to procure in Ukraine, says another volunteer, Taras Patlatiuk, a Ukrainian scientist in Basel who's helping Ambulance Relief.

Ramscar has kept a hands-on approach to the work, going in search of specialist equipment online and ordering from suppliers abroad. She even drives to her local hardware shop, her toddler in tow, to pick up more commonplace items like generators, which she then temporarily parks in her living room.

Her children and her husband, Nick, have enthusiastically supported her efforts. But it has been difficult to juggle this work – all of it voluntary and unpaid – with the demands of family life.

Photo Credit: Helen Ramscar

"There were patches that, looking back, were slightly ridiculous," says Ramscar. "It can be very all-consuming. You can't sustain the manic churning of donations, collecting, and dropping off, because my children are also my priority. [But] the groundwork needed to be done." Now, 15 months after it all began, she says she's found a good balance.

Signs of gratitude are dotted around Ramscar's home. Ornate certificates in Ukrainian sent by a handful of recipients of Ambulance Relief donations line the top of a well-stocked bookshelf. On her desk, Ramscar has placed a canvas painting of hydrangeas, a gift from a rehabilitation centre that received a generator. She's also received two awards from the British embassy in Bern for her charity work.

Ramscar's confidence in her ability to make a difference has grown with her successes. She is now setting up an association to continue delivering urgently needed medical aid to Ukraine and other parts of the world.

Donating ambulances, Ramscar says, "is so far away from anything I’ve done before." It shows that, even in the face of conflict far away, "we’re not powerless," she says. "We can do things in small ways and start from nothing."

As the war drags on, her sense of purpose remains strong, with the image of Irina Kalinina ever present in her mind. "I still hold on to it," she says. "That is part of my motivation. I don't want to forget her."

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from the English language service of SWI

READ NEXT: How Has the War Changed Ukraine?

TNL Editor: TJ Ting (@thenewslensintl)

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