'There was so much destruction'

28 Jun 2023

Queenstown’s nurse, Maia Blenkinsop witnessed extraordinary bravery while working in Ukraine.


MSF doctor Olena Kurinna and nursing activity manager Maia Blenkinsop providing primary health care to Anna Ivanivna Nefedova in the Tsyrkuny village town hall, Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine. © Linda Nyholm/MSF

This article was originally published on Woman’s Day Magazine NZ

In 2022, our recruitment team approached Queenstown nurse Maia Blenkinsop, to ask her to go to Ukraine, on her second medical aid assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). When she was asked if she could be ready to leave in two weeks, she said she could not. “But I can be ready in  three weeks.”.

As early has her teens, Maia, 42, dreamed of being a humanitarian aid worker after reading an inspiring book, which is how she found herself in South Sudan with MSF in 2020. But Ukraine was an even better fit for the Canadian born nurse because her maternal grandparents were Ukrainian, so Maia is fluent in Russian and can understand some Ukrainian. 

After arranging leave from her role as a rural nurse at Twizel Medical Centre, Maia flew to Kyiv in October last year.

“The first thing I did upon arriving was install the air raid app on my phone. Although when the sirens went off on my first night, I wasn’t sure if I should go to the basement or stay in my room, but I was soon able to sleep through anything.”

Moving on from Kyiv, Maia travelled east by train to meet her team in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

“Kharkiv had been severely bombarded, With one of the city’s top suburbs right on the front line. Many of the apartment buildings had their fronts blown off by missiles, so you could see right into people’s flats and virtually every window was broken or taped up. There was so much destruction.”


Buildings partially destroyed from shelling in the city of Kharkiv. © Amnon Gutman

Each day, Maia and a team of local doctors would drive further east from their base in Kharkiv, taking medical care to small towns that had been under Russian control. 

“Once the counter-offensive had pushed the front line back, all these villages were back in Ukrainian hands, but it wasn’t known what access they’d had to healthcare after eight months of terror, being shelled every day and forced to live in their basements for months. 

“Can you imagine, being a farmer in a small closeknit rural community, to be attacked by a powerful military force and find yourself in the middle of a war?”

But the thing that touched Maia most was the stoicism of the older women. “Seventy percent of my patients were elderly ladies and they reminded me of my Ukrainian grandmother. They’re from that generation that doesn’t complain, but they’re also incredibly tough. The sort of women who don’t often get seen, who would never go on camera to say what they’d endured, but when they sat in my assessment room, many of them would cry.”

Maia, however, had to bottle things up, saving her tears for another time, so she could focus on her patients. “In some towns, the soldiers took all the cellphones so civilians couldn’t contact the outside world or report on military positions.

The villagers were desperate to keep in contact with family, so they’d hide phones, but if they were found, sometimes people were threatened, lined up against a wall, guns held to their heads. Another elderly woman, she’d stayed in her village with her bedbound husband. When she answered a knock at her door, a soldier saw her on the phone to her family who’d fled, so he threw a grenade into her house.”

Confronted with the horrors of conflict in this region, Maia reflected on the suffering her grandparents endured, before they settled in Canada as refugees in 1953. 

“Both Mum’s parents were Ukrainian. They lived through the Soviet-orchestrated famine called Holodomor, which is Ukrainian for ‘death by hunger’. Then during the Second World War, in 1941, the Germans took my grandmother as a prisoner of war because she was a chemist. After the war, she spent seven years in a displaced person’s camp, where she met my grandfather, and where my Mum was born.” 

Despite the conflict, locals refuse to stop living their lives.

In spite of the conflict, life in Ukraine goes on. “There’s a Westfield-style five-level shopping centre in Kharkiv and a missile went right through its ceiling during a period of heavy shelling. I arrived in Kharkiv some months after, in October, and by December,  the hole was patched and the shops were open, but you could still see the burn marks. It was business as usual in Kyiv too – many restaurants and bars were open because people refuse to stop living their lives. It’s how I imagine London was during the Blitz, when people still went to the theatre. Keep calm and carry on is a universal act of defiance.”

Safely back in the South Island, Maia is once again working at Twizel Medical Centre and Queenstown Hospital. She also looks forward to leading a medical team up the Remarkables during the ski season. “I’m definitely thankful for life’s simple pleasures. You just don’t appreciate walking on grass until you’ve had to stick to paved surfaces for any length of time because you’ve been worried you might step on a landmine.”

MSF always puts staff safety first, but there are still risks. “In Kramarivka, a suburb of Izyum, a city that saw heavy destruction, we saw all these missiles fly over our heads. They were so fast, so massive and so close, our driver joked he could read their serial numbers. The Ukrainian staff all wanted to continue working, so we finished the clinic, but if one of the missiles had been intercepted above us, it would likely have been an unsurvivable explosion.”