San Juan Bautista family spends holiday season helping Ukraine

Aragon Ellwanger is providing trauma care to people severely injured in the war.
Dr Ellwanger and his team. Photo courtesy of Margret Ellwanger.
Dr Ellwanger and his team. Photo courtesy of Margret Ellwanger.
Dr Ellwanger working on a patient. Photo courtesy of Margret Ellwanger.
Dr Ellwanger working on a patient. Photo courtesy of Margret Ellwanger.

As San Benito County friends and family gather for holiday cheer, Dr. Aragon Ellwanger will not be joining in. He is in Ukraine where war rages and residents don’t have electricity or running water. 

Ellwanger and his sister, Britta Ellwanger, are in the Ukraine doing all they can to save lives and offer basic needs for survival. Their parents, Margret and Russell Ellwanger, live in San Juan Bautista and Margret sent BenitoLink an email about the painful life-and-death circumstances her adult children witness daily in the war zone. 

Benitolink first introduced daughter Britta to readers in April, when she shared her firsthand experience assisting refugees along the Poland-Ukraine border. 

Recently, Britta’s brother joined in the effort by offering his medical skills to Ukrainians injured in the war. 

According to Margret, Aragon is working to become full-time member of the maxillofacial department of Kryvyi Rih Hospital 2, the first emergency trauma stop for all patients coming from the southern Kherson frontline. 

Margret told BenitoLink that Aragon described his first day as “very special. The surgeons are hardworking, dedicated physicians doing all they can and more. The synergy within the team, their humility, and their proactive desire to do more was inspiring.”

They are, he wrote, “another group of often unsung heroes. What an honor to walk amongst them. Their footsteps take you directly through a reality of this war that is personal and highlights the individual while offering expansive systemic observations of the state of medical care in wartime Ukraine.”

Margret told BenitoLink the medical group’s needs are dire, because wartime trauma cases require nuanced experience that civilian medical training does not prepare them for. She said they are also lacking basic equipment for long-term rehabilitation. 

Based on her correspondence with Aragon, Margret said the best they can do with current medical supplies and training is to suture open wounds because they do not have the medical support for bone harvesting and reconstruction the patients require to recover basic functionality. 

Aragon said his first patient needed comprehensive trauma care to prevent him from losing full jaw movement. The patient had been forwarded to Kyiv trauma care two months prior but had not yet been treated. 

The second patient Aragon saw had the right side of his jaw blown off from secondary artillery fire. He received his CT scan two hours after being on the Kherson front, but he is not currently slated for trauma care because of the lack of equipment and local capacity. According to Aragon, this man will not be able to function or eat normally because his lips were not reconstructed. 

“With no bone reconstruction, the left side of his face will remain a loose pocket of skin,” he said. “He will never eat solid foods again.”

Margret added, “In wartime Ukraine an inordinate amount of medical aid is getting delivered to hospitals that are nowhere near the front and are not dealing with trauma patients and does not focus on sustained systemic support and advancement of trauma medicine.”

Because of the lack of support and training near the front lines, Margaret said the only option for victims is to be transported to other countries, a great challenge for those fighting for their lives.

In his message home, Aragon said, “We don’t know how to treat this patient. Our method of dealing with advanced trauma care is to figure out a medical evacuation for the patient to a foreign country.”

Frustrated with the limited medical capacity, he shared more tragic stories. “A girl with both legs blasted from a missile strike in Mykolaiv is laying in a bed in western Ukraine. The doctors are not sure how to do the preparatory skin graft before she hopefully gets evacuated for prosthetic care abroad. Her amputations are still open wounds,” he said.

Margret said just weeks ago, a village desperately reached out to Aragon’s team because a 19-year-old male from the village was suffering from heavy internal bleeding and organ failure. She said the medical team he had access to did not know what to do and the family’s only chance was to get him evacuated abroad. The victim died before he could be evacuated.

As the conflict continues and is now in its 11th month, Britta has returned to Ukraine and is living in the active war zone along the eastern and southern front around Kherson. She and her network of Ukrainian volunteers and community organizers are in places like Bakhmut, Donets’k, Izium, Kharkiv, Kherson and Lyman, providing humanitarian relief to the civilian population. She has built up an extensive relief network to address infrastructure needs such as water filtration systems, winter heating solutions, electricity and regional defender needs. The Ellwangers have also set up forPEACE, a nonprofit organization which is providing relief to Ukraine.

Both Britta and Aragon hope to return for a short period after the holidays to see family and campaign for more U.S. aid to Ukraine. As winter sets in and living conditions worsen, Aragon focuses under surgical lights helping victims of violence heal while Britta and her network provide humanitarian relief. Through their commitment, the Ellwanger family demonstrates that even in brutal and terrifying situations, individuals can make a difference one life at a time.


Related BenitoLink articles:

Member of San Juan Bautista family bears witness to the Ukraine war | BenitoLink


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Carmel de Bertaut

Carmel has a BA in Natural Sciences/Biodiversity Stewardship from San Jose State University and an AA in Communications Studies from West Valley Community College. She reports on science and the environment, arts and human interest pieces. Carmel has worked in the ecological and communication fields and is an avid creative writer and hiker. She has been reporting for BenitoLink since May, 2018 and covers Science and the Environment and Arts and Culture.