I have a friend and colleague working in Ukraine who will fly to Poland on December 17th to buy Ukrainian children toys and chocolate. If you’d like to help, donate $20 here to sponsor a child in need. Learn more about this dedicated physician and compassionate leader:
Rajeev Fernando co-founded Chiraj, a non-profit medical organization, and is a 2021 Annual Compassionate Leaders Circle Award recipient. When I first met Fernando, he was working on the COVID crisis. Now, he’s working in Ukraine and has been since days after the war broke out.
Fernando’s love for medicine started with his love for humanity. His parents initially raised him in the States, but as he got older, they moved him to a more conservative region of India. “It was a challenge to move to India and catch up with the education system there,” Fernando said. He also noticed a stark contrast between New York City and India in terms of access to medicine. In India, he first encountered children with leprosy who couldn’t receive treatment due to their socioeconomic standing. Fernando wanted to help those children. His compassion and the education he received propelled him to become the doctor he is today.
Fernando takes his profession very seriously while maintaining an incredibly positive attitude. “Being in difficult circumstances like Ukraine doesn’t matter to me. I still get up with that energy, that smile, whether I wake up in New York or Ukraine.” The war in Ukraine started on the 24th of February this year—Fernando flew out on the 28th. He didn’t have a plan. Fernando just knew he had a set of skills that could be useful for people who are suffering. Fernando started taking night shifts helping refugees at the Polish-Ukrainian border town of Medyka, bearing the brunt of the brutal winter weather. After some time, he moved to Lviv, the biggest city in the Western part of Ukraine. Fernando worked out of a train station. It was a real challenge to treat refugees on the move without their medications effectively. Fernando and his team only had access to 3-day supplies of drugs that were required daily. The treatments he provided could only serve as quick fixes, band-aid solutions. That kind of “patchwork,” he calls it, was disheartening.
In his work, Fernando had always been taught to lead with a “crisis leadership” framework, but the more he saw what was playing out in Ukraine, he found compassionate leadership was needed. Fernando noticed that two groups of people were being forgotten in his team’s efforts: the children and those struggling with mental health issues. As for the children, he noticed how negatively they were being impacted by seeing how shut down they were while he worked with them. He made a conscious effort to provide extra little bits of comfort, like giving them hot chocolate and starting a drive for books and toys. For those struggling with mental health issues, a more significant problem was at hand. Fernando learned that mental health treatment in Ukraine was greatly stigmatized and undervalued. For instance, it’s frowned upon to have depression in Ukraine, and people with depression often get diagnosed as schizophrenic by the few psychiatrists available. This diagnosis negatively impacts their job prospects. Fernando raised this issue with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, which provided space for him and his colleagues to host local psychologists to treat people in need. Those mental health centers became the focus of Fernando’s organization, Chiraj. Since the start of the war, Chiraj has opened psychological support centers for citizens and soldiers across Ukraine—their main base being in Kyiv.
So how does Fernando keep himself mentally fit and resilient? First and foremost, he maintains his sense of joy and purpose simply by doing what he loves. Fernando says his work, for him, is a privilege and an incredible opportunity. He says that weekend trips and meditation also provide “prophylactic mental health breaks” that help him stay energized and engaged in his work. Fernando’s story is a testament to the power of having a calling and living in that truth.
You can donate to his organization, Chiraj, here. If you’ve been inspired this year by another compassionate leader, please take a moment to nominate them for the 2023 Annual Compassionate Leaders Circle Awards here.