‘You name it, they needed it’: Grand River Health doctors provide humanitarian aid in Ukraine

Ray K. Erku
Citizen Telegram
A Ukrainian refugee holding her baby stares into the camera. Sitting at her right is Grand River Health Doctor Heath Cotter.
Submitted / Michael Duehrssen

Grand River Health doctors Michael Duehrssen and Heath Cotter carried massive totes full of medical supplies into Denver International Airport.

Their mission: use at least $4,000 worth of medication and additional gear to complete a two-week humanitarian effort assisting Ukrainian military units, hunkered civilians and fleeing refugees.

“There are people there who have never shaved,” Cotter said of the Ukrainian forces he trained during their trip a few weeks ago. “That’s how young they are.”

The supplies they negotiated through international customs were made possible by personal donations amassed by Grand River Health employees.

“We didn’t see any wounds from the frontline,” Duehrssen said. “But the medication that wasn’t used — the supplies donated by the hospital — was sent to the frontlines.”

Grand River Health Doctor Michael Duehrssen, left, unloads medical supplies in Ukraine.
Submitted / Michael Duehrssen

Duehrssen and Cotter are back from besieged Ukraine, which, with an estimated 23,000 lives lost on both sides, is now more than a month into trying to repel its Russian occupiers.

On March 31 in Rifle, the doctors showed slides of their harrowing experiences to a room full of fellow doctors, hospital officials and accompanying community members.

The gallery featured a mother staring blankly into a camera lens, a group of orphans eating borscht at a long table, Cotter and Duehrssen teaching soldiers and civilians how to treat the wounded.

“They really wanted to know tactical first-aid,” Duehrssen said. “Because what if the Russians attack their village?”


Everything was going fine until customs officials in Bucharest came across the totes filled with pharmaceuticals.

“Once they hit the medications, all of a sudden they wanted a detailed, itemized list, who we got it from, how much it cost,” Cotter said.

It was about midnight, and Duehrssen and Cotter were fresh off an international flight from Istanbul. Determined to hop a connecting flight to a city near Ukraine’s border, the journey would be delayed hours by inquisitive customs agents.

Departing Denver, however, was a different story.

The ticket agent and airport officials there essentially streamlined the booking process once they realized what Duehrssen and Cotter were up to. Not only did they get them on the next flight to Turkey as quickly as possible, they knocked off about $2,000 in luggage fees.

“The lady standing behind the counter was very, very sweet,” Cotter said.

Grand River Health Doctor Heath Cotter treats a patient in Ukraine.
Submitted / Michael Duehrssen

The boondoggle in Bucharest prompted the Rifle doctors to ditch the next flight for an eight-hour drive to Ukraine. On the way, they’d meet up with a busload of doctors, professors, translators and college students. Among the humanitarians were also Duehrssen’s wife and college-age daughter.

Their destination was Chernivtsi, a southwestern Ukraine refugee crossroads that’s been hit a lot more by air-raid sirens than actual bombs.

“They had just bombed the airport 50 miles away from that city of 300,000,” Duehrssen said. “You can imagine that we had felt a little anxiety coming up to the border.”

Humanitarian efforts throughout Duehrssen’s life have led to some tight spots, he said. In 2007, he was arrested in Venezuela. Once, in Nicaragua, he had AK-47 rifles pointed into his chest.

So, when the Rifle native made it into Ukraine, his mind flashed back.

“Are we really doing the right thing going into a war country?” he said. “And now I’ve got a bunch of college students with us, too.”


Getting to a refugee camp north of Chernivtsi required navigating soldier-occupied checkpoints and massive barriers meant to thwart Russian tanks roaming the streets.

Houses were still intact. As was the city’s world heritage center, a brick castle-like structure even the Germans chose not to bombard in World War II.

The 200 Ukrainians at the refugee camp were fleeing more ravaged parts of the country. They sought warmth in a large lodge, and they ate borscht just about every day, the doctors said.

Later, an additional 100 orphans arrived.

“They needed blankets, they needed pillows,” Cotter said. “You name it, they needed it.”

Grand River Health Doctor Michael Duehrssen treats a Ukrainian refugee.
Submitted / Michael Duehrssen

Cotter said old ladies, unable to fight, took up duties in the kitchen.

“Morning to nightfall, they would just bake bread,” he said. “They would give it to the refugees, they would give it to the army. That’s their contribution.”

If it wasn’t feeding the hungry, mental health needs were also addressed. In small groups, refugees would talk with college students about their experiences.

Duehrssen’s daughter, Madeline, also used a harp she brought from the United States to help calm everyone’s nerves.

“They would start crying, and they started opening up about their experience,” Duehrssen said. “And my daughter would play the harp.”


Treating refugees is a busy job.

Throughout makeshift medical clinics, Cotter and Duehrssen treated somewhere between 30-40 patients per day, each.

“(Doctors) were just over themselves with all the medications that we showed up with,” Cotter said.

Most of the Ukrainian refugees possessed the same ailments you’d see here at a walk-in clinic. Cotter said conditions like hypertension, sciatica and back problems were commonplace.

In a frantic rush to flee, many left medications behind. Others, like a child Cotter came across suffering from untreated meningitis, were deprived of regular treatments.

“Unfortunately, this is a seven-month-old who’s two-and-a-half-months-post-viral meningitis, who can’t stand, can’t hold up his head and is never probably going to be like he had been prior to meningitis,” Cotter said.

A Ukrainian refugee being helped by a humanitarian volunteer.
Submitted / Michael Duehrssen

At clinics, Cotter said they would simply splay supplies on the table and start picking and choosing what they had and what they could use.

And people kept rolling in.

One town they worked in had 3,000 residents. A week later, it swelled to 10,000.

“I didn’t think we were going to be out of this place without having some kind of bombings,” Duehrssen said. “But it didn’t happen, thank God.”

When the doctors finished presenting their experiences helping the Ukrainian people, one woman in the crowd raised her hand and asked them one question.

“How can we help?”


There are a number of ways people can donate toward humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. Visit these organizations online for more information:

International Rescue Committee

World Central Kitchen


The Giving Block

Together Rising

Heart to Heart International

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or

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