Paul Runge felt helpless as he watched the Russian army rush Ukrainian borders in February, initiating a devastating war that continues to rage on.
He didn’t know that by July, he’d be walking alongside Ukrainian doctors, treating newborns and infants in a hospital in Ivano-Frankivsk, a large city about 75 miles south of Lviv.
Runge, a retired ophthalmologist, wasn’t particularly interested in typical retirement hobbies — such as golfing, tennis, or extensive travel — instead leaning into opportunities of helping others with his medical knowledge, whether by teaching or volunteering.
“I wasn’t ready to just sit around and do nothing for the remaining part of my life,” Runge said in a phone interview, speaking with the Herald-Tribune from Ivano-Frankivsk. “I was sitting at home like everybody else, watching (the war) unfold and just wondering what I could do.”
Runge sent dozens of emails and calls out to his connections to help in West Ukraine and its biggest cities but had a string of false starts before landing in Ivano-Frankivsk July 4.
His 10-day trip took him 80 miles north of Lviv to donate a special eye lens to a Ukrainian doctor and back to Ivano-Frankivsk to work in a children’s hospital neonatal intensive care unit, as well as picking up hours in a military hospital next door.
“I was really excited when I realized that No. 1, they wanted me and No. 2, I could really be of help,” Runge said. “I don’t want to be like a bull in a China shop and tell everybody ‘Hey, you gotta do it this way, that’s the way we do it.’ But I’ve really enjoyed being here.”
“(The doctors) are very enthusiastic. They’re not driven by money. They’re wanting to do as good of a job as they possibly can for their patients. It’s such a unique and refreshing experience.”
Runge is board-certified in ophthalmology and specialized in medical retinal training. Besides his private Sarasota practice, he also taught resident physicians at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and treated premature infants at Sarasota Memorial Hospital — where no baby under his care has ever become blind.
Everyday life near a war zone
He arrived back in Ivano-Frankivsk on September 10 and plans to spend the rest of the month there, saying that he feels comfortable and safe despite the nearby military conflict.
“This morning we were awakened by air raid sirens, and when I arrived at the hospital, all the patients and staff were in the basement bomb shelter,” Runge said in a text message Tuesday morning. “Nothing unusual transpired, and we were back to work in less than an hour.”
Runge described a scene of life-going-on, enthusiastically describing the produce at a local farmers market as well as the silent reminders of war: structures surrounded by sandbags and a curfew beginning at 11 p.m. sharp.
He admitted to a blunder in the beginning: walking around “like a tourist” and taking pictures of the town.
“I thought, well, we’ll wander around the city. You see Anderson Cooper wandering around in his helmet and black jacket, and I thought well, let’s see what the city really looks like,” Runge said.
“But police officers walked up to me — they didn’t speak English — and tapped me on the shoulder, pointed at my phone. they wanted me to open it up and they erased all my pictures.”
Runge said there are ongoing concerns about Russian spies and didn’t blame Ukrainian officers for taking precautions.
“(Ukrainians) have a common cause. All they talk about is how the country has pulled together to defeat these tyrants. They’re not thinking that they’re anything but winning this war,” he said.
“I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.”