A Pennsylvania physician travels to Moldova and Ukraine to offer medical assistance to victims of war
By Dr. James O’Bryon
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. James O’Bryon has been a Knight for 44 years; he joined when he was 21, not long before he married his high school sweetheart, Millie, and not long after he became Catholic.
It was Millie who brought O’Bryon to Mass for the first time. “I like to say she saved me from the fires of hell. I was somewhat of a rambunctious teenager,” he said. “As time went on, Millie did ask me if I would convert to Catholicism, but she really didn’t have to ask. I said yes before she finished the question. That one decision I made as a teenager has made all the difference in my life.”
O’Bryon, now a family doctor in Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania, has served his parish and his council — Father Raymond F. Dugan Council 935 — in various ways through the decades, including as grand knight. When war broke out in Ukraine last year, he again felt called to serve.
The father of three and grandfather of eight traveled to Ukraine and neighboring Moldova in early September with the medical mission organization CERT International (Christian Emergency Relief Team). Dr. O’Bryon recently spoke with Columbia about his experience; this account is adapted from that interview.
When the war broke out in Ukraine, back in February, I think I was like a lot of people — saying to myself, “Boy, I wish I could do something.” We saw the images across the TV, the horrors and the suffering that people were going through.
I visited a Ukrainian priest in the town next to us; he still has family over there. I prayed with him and gave him a monetary donation. But I really felt like I needed to do more. So I did an internet search for short-term medical missions, and I found CERT International. I applied and was accepted for a mission trip to Moldova and Ukraine in the first two weeks of September.
We were headquartered in Chişinău, the capital of Moldova, with three clinic days in Moldova and two in Ukraine. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe. All of the clinics were set up through local churches there, and we would drive for hours to some pretty remote villages in Moldova, where we treated both local people in need and Ukrainian refugees. Later in the week, we crossed over into Ukraine. We were headquartered at a church in Odessa, and that’s where our clinic was set up. I’m told Odessa is a beautiful city, but we really didn’t see much; you don’t do much sightseeing right now in Ukraine.
The church had an underground bunker that we were able to sleep in. There was no fighting right around us, but there was fighting east of Odessa, in Kherson. We got an alert on our phone one day that there was fighting nearby, which I think affected the numbers that we saw that day, unfortunately, because a lot of the people didn’t want to go out.
We saw mainly elderly women and mothers with young children. We saw a lot of hypertension, a lot of diabetes. People hadn’t been taking their medications. They couldn’t afford them, and they had no way to get them. They couldn’t get to a pharmacy. So we were able to provide. The young children had many ailments just like we see in this country — acute things like ear infections, upper respiratory infections. We had antibiotics and medications for them.
We had rudimentary equipment, and we couldn’t give them everything that I wish we could. But we made the best with what we had to work with. And it was just an incredible feeling in my heart to be able to provide for them.
One particular experience impacted me very much. We were at an elder home outside of Odessa. It was sort of a nursing home, but with pretty deplorable conditions. And I saw one elderly woman who had had a stroke. I introduced myself, and the interpreter explained to her why we were there. She just broke down in tears, tears of joy. She told me through the interpreter that she couldn’t believe we came all the way from America to help them.
I feel that what the people were most thankful for was just somebody to sit with them, to listen to them, to care with them and to pray with them. You could you see the bravery and determination on their faces, but trauma as well.
And the need has only grown since I was there in September. More of the infrastructure has been destroyed. Winter is upon the country now. I emailed one of my interpreters who lives in Ukraine with her grandmother — she is now without electricity. People are without electricity, without heat, without running water.
It’s hard to find a Catholic church there, but I was fortunate to find one about a mile from us in Chişinău. I was able to walk there for Mass both weekends. And if anything made me feel at home, it was just sitting in Mass. I could not understand any of the words they were saying — but I knew exactly what they were saying. I felt very blessed to be there.
This was my first mission trip, but I definitely want to go again, and I hope I can in the future. Medical mission work ties directly to the founding mission of the Knights: serving God and serving those in need, helping the sick, helping the poor, helping the helpless. But I think any missioner will tell you that you get more out of it than the people you’re serving — and when you come back from a mission trip, you leave a piece of your heart with them.