People of SFU

SFU staffer transports life-saving medical supplies to Ukraine

October 06, 2022
Second from right, Rob McTavish, program director with SFU's Centre for Educational Excellence, brought almost $500,000 in much-needed medical equipment to hospitals in the Ukraine.

For Rob McTavish, it was small things – photographs on the wall of an abandoned house, a vegetable garden that was planted in the spring – that brought home the human impact of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Warning: The following story contains descriptions of bombings and warfare

“I’ve been in warzones before, having been a peacekeeper and a soldier around the world,” says McTavish, who recently transported five suitcases containing almost half a million dollars’ worth of medical supplies for surgeons and front-line medics in Ukraine.

“Seeing it again and so new – people were just here, living here. The little things were what really hit home. Where are those families now and how are they going to start over?”

In August, McTavish, program director in SFU’s Centre for Educational Excellence, spent 10 days travelling from Vancouver to Ukraine, via Poland, carrying five suitcases stuffed with combat first aid supplies and orthopedic medical equipment – bone saws, bone drills, pins and rods and screws and plates – for hospitals in Ukraine.

The journey, from Warsaw down to Zaporizhzhia and then out to the front lines in Donestk, included hospitals visits in Dnipro and in Bucha and Irpin on the outskirts of Kiev.

“You’d see high-rises with people living in them, but whole sections had been blown out,” says McTavish. “These are modern cities. It is wanton destruction. Rockets landing here, there and everywhere.”

For McTavish, the journey to the Ukraine began when he and partner Cher Hill, an assistant professor in SFU’s Faculty of Education, answered a community callout and opened the doors of their Coquitlam home to host a 15-year-old Ukrainian boy and his 86-year-old grandmother. The boy, Max, who turns 16 in October, is enjoying hanging out with McTavish’s three children. He is thriving academically – he was bumped up a grade at school – and his science fair project, an ionic thrust engine, was selected for presentation at the United Nations.

'Seeing it again and so new – people were just here, living here. The little things were what really hit home. Where are those families now and how are they going to start over?'

- Rob McTavish, Program Director for SFU's Centre for Educational Excellence

At a party for the boy and his grandmother this summer, McTavish was asked by a neighbour to take some medical supplies into the Ukraine. McTavish, who served as a paratrooper with the Canadian Armed Forces from 1986 to 2007 and was a peacekeeper in Cyprus in 1988, immediately reached out to an orthopedic surgeon friend and secured $400,000 in equipment through a pair of anonymous donors.

Along with the donations of orthopedic surgical supplies for mending broken bones that McTavish was able to secure, another community member provided a defibrillator and a surgical cauterizer, as well as combat first aid supplies, like tourniquets and quick-clot bandages.

Max, second from left, and his grandmother, right, have been living with SFU's Cher Hill, centre, and Rob McTavish, left, and their children. On his recent trip to the Ukraine, McTavish visited Max's parents.

Travelling alone, he arrived in Poland on Aug. 3rd and caught a ride with a friend of a friend from Warsaw to Lutsk, crossing borders and navigating checkpoints and curfews with his five suitcases. The pair headed east toward Kiev and then southeast to Dnipro. From there, McTavish went into the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, meeting with soldiers on the front and delivering bottled water to troops in the trenches.

From Donetsk, he returned west to Zaporizhzhia and met with Max’s parents.

“It was very emotional to look the parents in the eye and say, ‘Your son is safe. He’s OK. He misses you, but he’s happy and he’s OK,” says McTavish. “They had to send their only child away with less than 24-hour’s notice, not knowing if they’ll ever see him again.”

In Marhanets, located across the river from the massive Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, he toured an elementary school and hospital that were both ruined from shelling. The city was hit with another 80 rockets a day after his visit.

“People are trying to go about their lives, but they’re being worn down. In Zaporizhzhia, every night there are air raid sirens. Every night there are rockets landing. Every night you can’t sleep well because it’s just so indiscriminate. These are buildings with ‘children’ written on the roof. It is upsetting to see.”

Rob McTavish sorts through some of the medical supplies that he transported to Ukraine. Most of the supplies were orthopedic equipment for mending broken bones.

In Dnipro, he distributed the orthopedic equipment to hospitals and met with a nurse who could take two suitcases of combat first aid supplies north to Kharkiv. He filmed short videos of surgeons receiving the equipment, “like little kids opening Christmas presents,” to bring back to show the donors. 

Since his return on Aug. 10th, McTavish has been collecting donations for a return trip in January. He has helped secured $1.8 million in supplies from a surgical hospital, including an X-ray machine, AED machines, wheelchairs, and operating room lights. He plans to transport the equipment via shipping container, filling excess space with surplus hospital beds from Fraser Health and hospital linens. He’s also fundraising for body armour and drone batteries, something that was requested by soldiers he met at the front.

“It was incredibly rewarding to feel like I was accomplishing something, as small as it was.”

This is a story in our People of SFU series, where we’re celebrating SFU’s unsung heroes—those who go above and beyond the call of duty to create community, advance SFU’s mission and make the university a great place to work and learn. You can read more stories here.