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Upstate surgeon takes medical mission to help war victims in Ukraine

Upstate head and neck surgeon Sherard ‘Scott’ Tatum, MD, traveled to Ukraine in September to perform facial surgeries on civilians and soldiers injured in the war with Russia.

He was among a team of eight surgeons, two nurses, one surgical technician, and four support staff who made the trip with Face to Face (F2F), the humanitarian arm of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Tatum has been a member of the AAFPRS for 37 years.

“We helped a lot of people in need,” he said. “We made lifelong friends with the Ukrainians and each other. I came away with greater respect for human resilience.”

The team performed 34 complex surgeries at the Ivano-Frankivsk Regional Clinical Hospital during the week-long stay, working from 7 a.m. until 9 or 10 p.m. each day. Surgical interventions ranged from nasal reconstruction to the transplantation of a leg bone for reconstruction of a patient’s lower jaw.

Tatum, former chair of the Otolaryngology Department at Upstate, performed six surgeries, including palate defects and eye socket repairs. The rest were adults with penetrating trauma to the face or head either from guns or shrapnel. They were a mix of civilian and military casualties. He said the leg bone facial reconstruction was the most complex case, and the surgery last 14 hours

“Many had severe defects/deformities of the facial bones,” he said. “Several had lost eyes, jaw segments, teeth. There were many with very bad scars.”

His patients ranged in age from 11 to 75.

“We replaced missing bone with grafts or titanium implants,” Tatum said. “We reconstructed eye sockets so they could receive an ocular prosthesis. We fixed discontinuous jaws. We repaired holes in the palate connecting the mouth and nose by moving adjacent tissue over the hole, similar to how we fix cleft palates.” 

Tatum said the team worked in western Ukraine, relatively far from the front but that the area was hit by rockets in the early days of the war and then soon after the team left.

Tatum said despite evidence of the war all around them, he felt pretty safe during his time there.

“We saw no damage, but there were temporary sandbag battlements at many bridges and around some buildings,” he said. “There were antitank hedgehogs scattered about. We heard occasional air raid sirens. If we weren’t operating, we were supposed to go the bomb shelter, but we never did. They also have a cellphone system that warns of potential incoming ordnance.”

The trip was Tatum’s first mission to Ukraine, third to a war zone, and 15th overall as a member of F2F.

“I am usually involved in repairing birth defects or the occasional accidental injury,” Tatum said. “War injuries are particularly horrific. The technology of war far surpasses the technology to heal. There is enough natural human suffering in this world without manmade additions. I hope we can end war and need some day with kindness and generosity.”

Gennady Bratslavsky, M.D. chair of Upstate’s Department of Urology and a native of Ukraine, praised Tatum’s work.

“I just want to say that Dr. Tatum’s bravery and his commitment to humanism and Ukrainian patients is beyond remarkable. Their entire ENT team are the heroes.”

Bratslavsky traveled to Ukraine this Spring to bring medical supplies to the country.

Tatum said he was impressed by the bravery and resiliency of the Ukrainian people.

“Every damage or injury done to them strengthens their resolve,” he said. “The soldiers, even those with one eye, uniformly were eager to get back to the war.”

F2F is connected with two Ukrainian organizations, Razom for Ukraine and INgenious. The group also had help from Healing the Children, Northeast and Materialise, which printed expensive titanium implants for patients for free, and several other entities providing support and supplies. Several of the team members are Ukrainian-American.

Tatum said the group is planning a return trip for the spring and is working on recruitment and expanding visit sites.   

“The reason for this trip still boggles my mind,” he said. “I never would have thought a year ago that this kind of thing could be happening today. I pray for a speedy end to this and all conflicts around the world, especially those involving innocent citizens.”


Caption: Dr Sherard Tatum, right, performs facial surgery for civilians and soliders injured suffered in the war.