Ukrainian American doctor concerned for family living under threat of war with Russia

The doctor said she is worried about her family's safety if Russia invades.

February 23, 2022, 3:27 PM

This is a MedPage Today story.

Dr. Roksolana Vaskul, an anesthesiologist at RWJBarnabas Health in New Jersey, was recently FaceTiming with her 34-year-old niece who lives in western Ukraine.

The niece's 7-year-old daughter came home from school and told her mother her class was taught "how to run out of the school, to see how fast they could go," Vaskul told MedPage Today.

Her niece didn't ask "where they were running to, because she didn't want to traumatize her more than she already was."

Vaskul's other sister, who also lives in western Ukraine, said her 11- and 13-year-old children were being trained in school "what to do if there would be a bombing, and what to do if they were at home, or at school or on the streets" when it happened.

"We were having a casual conversation about that," Vaskul said. "It's so surreal because this is like a European country and you wouldn't expect something like this to happen in our lifetime."

The threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine has Ukrainian Americans -- especially those who still have family in Ukraine -- on edge. Vaskul, who is the board chairwoman for the Ukrainian American Cultural Center of New Jersey, is sharing her story in the hopes that her colleagues would recognize the difficulties facing the nation she once called home, and the importance of American support.

"The lives of so many people are in one person's hands," she noted, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A man takes his things out of the house after damaged by artillery shelling in Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 23, 2022.
Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

Vaskul has two daughters who were born in the U.S., ages 16 and 23. Some of their cousins from Ukraine recently came to visit for the holidays and stayed with them for a couple of weeks, so to hear that they're living under the threat of war has been devastating to her girls.

"When they hear all of this, they are just terrified," Vaskul said. "My 16-year-old starts crying."

Vaskul came to the U.S. in December 1991, just four months after the country declared its independence from the former Soviet Union. At that time, independence was very fragile, she explained. While she only planned to visit the U.S., she ultimately decided to stay -- partially because she didn't feel truly "free" at home.

By the time she came to the U.S., she had already completed medical school and a residency. Medical school was taught in Russian; all her textbooks were in Russian, she said.

"They would announce during your first day of medical school, this is your KGB agent," she said. "You had a KGB agent assigned to your village, everyone knew who he was."

"This was just the announced person," she added. "Then you had multiple unannounced people working for the KGB. You're talking complete control."

A Ukrainian serviceman patrols an area near his position at the line of separation between Ukraine-held territory and rebel-held territory near Svitlodarsk, eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 23, 2022.
Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

At that time, people living under Soviet rule weren't allowed to travel, read foreign newspapers or practice religion, she explained. Vaskul and her family would celebrate Christmas "underground" in her grandmother's basement. No one could listen to "foreign" music like the Beatles, she said.

"If someone would catch you listening to 'American propaganda,' you would be kicked out of university," she said.

Vaskul was able to support herself in the U.S. by working in restaurants for about a year, while studying for the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination.

Ultimately, she passed and was able to do a preliminary year in surgery, followed by a three-year residency in anesthesiology at St. Barnabas Medical Center, which is part of the health system where she now works.

Vaskul met her husband, who is also of Ukrainian descent, in the U.S., had her daughters in America and hasn't looked back. She's grateful to the U.S. for the opportunities she's had and strongly hopes the nation will support and defend Ukraine should Putin strike.

She believes the U.S. is obligated to do so by its endorsement of the Budapest Memorandum, signed by American, British, Ukrainian and Russian leaders in 1994. Under the terms of the agreement, Ukraine turned over its nuclear arsenal to Russia, in exchange for military protection from the U.S. and U.K. However, there has been some controversy over the exact protections guaranteed by the document.

Ukrainian soldiers stand at a front line position in Kryakivka, in eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 22, 2022.
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times via Redux

To Vaskul, the possibility of an attack is likely and very real. It's difficult imagining Ukrainian cities full of bombed-out ruins, and how drastically life would change for her sisters and their children, who've been living a Western lifestyle.

"It's a different generation now," she said. "Young people there speak English now. They travel. They have Facebook and Instagram. The majority of the Ukrainian people want to be with Europe. They don't want to go back to this old regime."

On Tuesday, the Biden administration condemned the beginnings of a Russian "invasion" of Ukraine, and imposed stronger sanctions, along with other allied nations. Vaskul said that while it's difficult to predict what will happen next, the threat of war touching her family's lives remains very real.

"I'm concerned and I'm scared and I'm devastated, for my family and for all the Ukrainian people," Vaskul said.

Related Topics