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As war rages in Ukraine, an O.C. nurse sends crucial medical aid to his home country

Daniel Bondarenko accepts a box packed with surgical supplies from orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Gus Gialamas.
Daniel Bondarenko, left, of Mission Viejo accepts a box packed with surgical supplies from orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Gus Gialamas at Sea View Orthopaedic Medical Group.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

It’s been more than three decades since Daniel Bondarenko fled Ukraine with his wife and children as the Soviet Union crumbled.

He made the decision to leave following years of persecution for practicing Christianity. Bondarenko had been jailed for smuggling Bibles over the border and his father was imprisoned for leading an underground church.

Bondarenko told TimesOC during a phone interview he had many interactions with the KGB Russian intelligence agency, and he decided to leave. “We just jumped in with three kids and seven suitcases,” he said.

Bondarenko had been a nurse in his home country before coming to California, so he decided to stick with that career. However, he had to attain his nursing license to be able to work in the United States. He spent three years getting his education and started working as a nurse in 1994. A year later, he took a job at Providence Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, and he’s remained there for 27 years.

Daniel Bondarenko picks up boxes packed with surgical supplies.
Daniel Bondarenko picks up boxes packed with surgical supplies donated by Orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Gus Gialamas at Sea View Orthopaedic Medical Group on Wednesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Though it’s been many years since he lived in Ukraine, Bondarenko says he still cares deeply for its people, and he’s been working to provide medical aid to the wounded since the Russian invasion in February, sparking a deadly war.

“When the war started, I started thinking, ‘How am I going to help my country?’" he said.

Bondarenko started talking with hospitals and medical personnel in Ukraine to assess their immediate needs. He began purchasing and upgrading medical kits before sending them in bulk to aid people being injured in battle. He also discussed the issue with co-workers, who donated money to his efforts, and enlisted the help of his daughter, who promoted the issue on Instagram.

In the first month, he sent 500 kits to Ukraine and forged important connections with church and community leaders in the country to get the kits to those in need.

It’s required a fair amount of strategy to get the bags to Ukraine. People have been flying the items in bags to Poland in commercial flights before handing them off to other people in Bondarenko’s network, who take the materials into the war-torn country. The delivery time from Los Angeles International Airport to the hospitals and front lines of the war is about a week. He averages about three shipments a month.

Huntington Beach’s Jeff Fitzhugh, who battles multiple myeloma, is part of T-shirt fundraiser to aid Ukraine relief efforts.

As the war has progressed, Bondarenko started concentrating on more specialized medical needs after receiving feedback from his Ukrainian contacts. The most important of these requests was for external fixators, which are used during wars to stabilize fractured bones. These devices are particularly expensive, so Bondarenko had to raise a significant amount of money. With the help of local donors, he was able to raise more than $100,000. He also started sending over paramedic bags.

Bondarenko said that about $200,000 has been donated so far.

“I was talking to paramedics in the field, the frontline hospitals and the civilian hospitals in the inner cities, and they use the external fixator because for surgery, they don’t have much time,” he said.

Bondarenko said that Dr. Jim Keany, an emergency physician at Providence Mission Hospital, has helped him figure out the logistics of providing the supplies to Ukraine. The pair have worked together for the entirety of Bondarenko’s time at the hospital. Keany is also very knowledgeable about disaster relief, having worked with the Federal Disaster Medical Assistance teams, which provide medical care when medical emergencies overwhelm government resources.

“When he started doing this stuff for Ukraine, one of the responses from one of our co-workers was, ‘That’s so Daniel,’” Keany said. “This is just in keeping with exactly who he is. He’s always been super energetic, super passionate, never accepting the status quo and always trying to improve conditions for patients.”

The next step for Bondarenko is to form a nonprofit to help people who are wounded in war zones. For that, he’s seeking help from Keany, who worked on humanitarian efforts in Haiti and the Philippines while leading a California branch of Remote Area Medical, a national nonprofit that provides free healthcare to underserved areas. Keany said he greatly admires Bondarenko and is excited to assist him.

“What he’s overcome to be here is just incredible,” Keany said.

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