Fully stocked, service-ready ambulances are among the most-needed items on the frontlines of the war in Ukraine. In early April, Andrew Mills, 36, and Melissa Sims, 38—two advanced-care paramedics who work on the same platoon in Victoria, B.C.—launched an ambitious fundraising campaign to raise $20,000, fly to Poland, buy an ambulance and drive it across the Ukrainian border. On a three-day journey, with the sounds of shelling in the background, their initial goal transformed into a much greater mission. This is their story:
ANDREW MILLS: Watching from afar, we saw the war shift quickly from a military war to one focused on targeting civilians, paramedics and other responders on the frontlines. The shelling of ambulances hit home for us. There was a plea from volunteer paramedic organizations in Ukraine saying: please, please send us ambulances.
One night, over a glass of red wine, I googled “used ambulances in Europe.” I found one in Poland and sent a message to a group chat of colleagues: “Anybody want to drive this ambulance to Ukraine with me?” Within 30 seconds, Melissa replied with a simple, “I’m in!”
MELISSA SIMS: I never had any real doubts or reservations. After talking to Andrew, I found an NGO called the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital (PFVMH)—a group of medics on the frontlines of the war who work with the Ukrainian state—and asked them if they could use another ambulance. They got back to us by the morning with an overwhelming “Yes, please.”
ANDREW: That turned my vague idea into something tangible. But we were unsure if we could come up with that much money. The timeline was tight, because the need was so pressing. We decided we were going to get them an ambulance no matter what.
We set up a fundraiser on Donately and it exploded, in large part because our paramedic colleagues took it to heart and shared it with their family and friends. I think they were similarly inspired by seeing not only the plight of everyday Ukrainians but paramedics and first responders. They got on board in a really big way. We went from an aspirational goal of $20,000 to raising over $120,000 over the course of two and a half weeks, which meant we could afford to get three ambulances and a bunch of supplies.
MELISSA: Finding the ambulances was no small feat. We did our best to source used ambulances in advance, with the help of a Polish colleague in Vancouver, Magda Wegner-Powala, who called dealers throughout Poland. The day before we were set to leave, we found out they had been sold.
ANDREW: On Sunday, April 17, we got on the plane to Warsaw with more than a hundred thousand dollars raised—and zero ambulances secured. The pressure was enormous, the stress was immense, and the logistical challenge was very real. Thankfully, while we were flying, Magda and her friend, Lukasz (who ended up being our interpreter, driver and overall fixer) had found multiple excellent options. Meanwhile, we were coordinating two other B.C. paramedics on the ground in Poland—Jeff Burko and his son, Max, who had been working to obtain medical supplies. A new plan was hatched to fill the ambulances with medical gear and deliver them to Ukraine fully stocked.
MELISSA: On Tuesday morning, we picked up Lukasz at the train station and went to see our very first ambulance in Plonsk, about an hour’s drive north of Warsaw. We were a little concerned because the tires looked bald and we thought there might be a small oil leak. We took it to a heavy-duty mechanic and transmission service nearby. When we asked how much we owed them, they said, “Nothing, thank you for what you’re doing,” and refused to take payment.
On the way to the mechanic, we’d had a long chat with Lukasz, who explained that paramedics were facing shortages of everything from food and water to basic feminine hygiene supplies. We realized that had to be a part of our mission. You can provide an ambulance, but if the paramedics can’t take care of themselves then the ambulance is useless. We spent the rest of Tuesday searching Warsaw for supplies, from water purification tablets and dehydrated meals to portable stoves.
ANDREW: Later that day, we drove south to Krakow, where we picked up Rick, a retired fire captain from the Victoria area on his way to volunteer on the frontlines. He donated some defibrillators to our cause and offered to drive one of the ambulances.
We drove to a small lakeside town in southern Poland called Chomeranice to see our second and third ambulances. We drove our second ambulance to our hotel, but the third one had a mechanical problem with the stretcher.
MELISSA: Unfortunately, they couldn’t fix the stretcher. But amazingly, Lukasz came through and arranged with the seller to purchase a like-new ambulance later in the week after we had left. (Editor’s note: After this interview, Mills and Sims confirmed that Lukasz delivered the third ambulance later that week and made it safely home to Poland.)
As we headed towards the Ukraine border, Lukasz got a message from Centrum Pomocy Humanitarnej w Szegini, the humanitarian organization he had been working with—the only one on the Ukrainian side of the border between Medya (Poland) and Shehyni (Ukraine). They were entirely out of food and sanitary supplies. So we made a stop at a grocery store and stocked four giant carts full of food and sanitary supplies.
ANDREW: It took five hours to cross the border, even taking the humanitarian route. We started handing out chocolate bars to border guards. Guys with big guns were stuffing four bars into their pockets and thanking us in broken English. It was very powerful. When you’re hungry, stressed and tired, a chocolate bar goes a long way.
MELISSA: We were overwhelmed. Lukasz was driving a nine-passenger rental van loaded with supplies, but it wasn’t allowed into Ukraine. So we had to stuff all these supplies into the ambulances, and Lukasz had to turn around and drive our rental vehicle back to Poland. Andrew and Rick the fire captain made it through customs first—I sent them ahead and said I’d meet them on the other side. But when I finally made it through, suddenly my cellphone data failed and I lost the map I’d been using. So now I was driving around the border of Ukraine trying to figure out what to do. I tried calling Andrew, but without data we had no way to get in touch with each other.
It was so chaotic and crowded with people trying to make it into Poland. I was making U-turn after U-turn trying to figure out where to go. Andrew finally found me parked on the side of the road.
ANDREW: Dropping off the ambulances was hurried. We were on the side of the road, exhausted and starving. The PFVMH volunteers had been waiting hours for us at the border. Nobody spoke each other’s languages. We knew that we had to get all the food out of the ambulance, and then they wanted to start driving because there are curfews and nightfall was nearing. They were all wearing army uniforms. One guy gave us both hugs. We were using Google Translate to try to thank them but they just want to get going because, well, there’s a war on and they have things to do. The rest of them gave us quick handshakes and drove off into the sunset, taking Rick with them, who was heading onwards to volunteer with firefighters on the frontlines.
At this point, having unloaded the food from the ambulances, Melissa and I were standing in the pouring rain on the side of a Ukrainian highway with thousands of dollars worth of food supplies. Our phones weren’t working properly, but I finally managed to get a hold of the humanitarian organization. They sent a car, but it only had two seats. They took all the food, quickly did a U-turn and drove away. Okay, I guess we’re walking back to Poland now.
We were about a kilometre from the border. We had our stuff, including a backpack with about $30,000 in it, because we still had to give the money to Lukasz for that third ambulance. We were carrying cash because there was no time to wait for bank transfers. It was getting dark and we were feeling vulnerable; we knew that paramedics and other responders are actively being kidnapped in Ukraine.
We were just about to walk into the borderline when Lukasz appeared out of nowhere, having finally crossed back into Ukraine from Poland. He gave us both enormous hugs and said, “Come come, you have to meet my friends.” So he took us back into the humanitarian area and introduced us to everybody, including his good friend Roman, a barista from southern Ukraine.
They had set up a makeshift coffee shop in this little shack on the border, with a four-head Italian espresso maker. He had craft beans from all the hipster coffee shops in Ukraine, and homemade baked goods from Ukrainian babushkas. “Do you want a ristretto, cappuccino, cortado, flat white, latte?” Roman asked. It was incredibly surreal. And of course, we were hungry and tired, so coffee and homemade snacks were amazing. He gave us each a bag of coffee from what he says is the best coffee shop in Kyiv. And then he insisted on recording a thank you video to us in Ukrainian, which Lukasz translated live. I’m choking up again just thinking about it.
There was something so human and familiar about being given a bag of coffee in a war zone of all places. This hint of normalcy, and the commonality of humanity. Before we knew it, Lukasz said, “We have to go. It’s getting dark.”
MELISSA: We were at customs waiting in a queue on the Ukraine side when all of a sudden in the distance we heard: Boom! Boom! Boom! In Victoria, we often hear booms like that, but it’s just construction. But it was the shelling. No one seemed phased by it except us. That was the first time I truly felt nervous about our safety. We went in very aware of the dangers, but hearing the sounds of war that close, that’s when it hit home.
By the time we got through the border, it was pitch black and pouring rain. We went with a stream of Ukrainian refugees. Grandmas with endless bags, young children crying and being carried. There was a boy just in front of us who had just turned 18 and was turned away from leaving since adult men can’t leave the country right now. He looked so sad and dejected. The rest of his family had to carry on without him.
We made it through and began the six-hour drive back to Warsaw to get on our flights back home.
ANDREW: In total, we spent $70,000 on ambulances, $30,000 on trauma and medical gear, $5,000 on personal survival kits for the paramedics—all of those donations were to go to the PFVMH—and $10,000 in food and sanitary supplies to the humanitarian group on the Ukrainian side.
Now that we’re home, we’re still pressing on with our fundraiser. As the PFVMH’s operations shift eastward, where the road network isn’t as developed, they’re doubling down on their appeal for armoured and all-terrain ambulances. Phase two will be trying to cover the cost of one, which is more than $50,000.
The plan is to either do the delivery ourselves again or send someone we trust. This trip underscored the need for people invested in the mission to be present and figure things out on the fly, because there are so many things that can go wrong along the way.
Looking back on the experience, it feels dreamlike. Like, did any of this actually happen? We were running on so little sleep that we were in almost this delirious, intoxicated mindset. We were so fatigued. Yet there was no choice but to press on.
To donate to Ambulances for Ukraine, click here.