Freeland Ackley and David McCall are no strangers to medical mission trips. They’ve provided aid to many countries on separate trips over the years but this was their first trip together and their first trip to a war-torn country. It’s been nearly a year since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, though the initial invasion began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. Drs. Ackley and McCall felt a calling to Ukraine that they couldn’t ignore and after six months of planning, made the trip across the world.
David McCall, DO, is a general surgeon at Baylor Scott & White, Hillcrest. He grew up as a missionary kid, following his dad – a physician – around hospitals in Africa. “I went into medicine with the mindset of wanting to do a lot of medical missions,” he said. “I fell in love with it at a young age. As I got older and got into undergrad and grad school, that was when God really laid it on my heart to pursue that.” Prior to Ukraine, his most recent trip was to Uganda but during his schooling and medical residency, he did a lot of medical mission trips with his dad.
Freeland Ackley, DO, is an orthopedic surgery specialist at Baylor Scott & White Sports and Orthopedic Center. He was also drawn to the medical field at a young age. “I’d always thought medicine was amazing and had thought about wanting to be a doctor. I came to Baylor and then realized it would take a lot of work, so I felt like it was something that I gave up to the Lord. I tried other things while I was at Baylor – business, other things like that – but just never really found the same fit or the same niche. I felt like it was during that time I was really led by the Lord to keep going and to keep trying and, similarly to David [McCall], all along wanting to do medical missions.” Before Ukraine, he was in Haiti in 2021, but he also spent time in Burma just before the coup which happened in 2021. He’s also done a lot of work in sub-Sahara Africa, including Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“All the same type [of medical missions] and only recently in the war disaster type things. This was definitely a first for both of us, walking into some kind of environment like that. We hadn’t done that before,” Ackley said. Despite having no military training, they couldn’t ignore the call tugging at their hearts to go to Ukraine. Though, they didn’t go to any areas of combat. “We were there to help in any way that we could but that wasn’t necessarily fighting,” he explained. “In that sense, we weren’t looking to – they kept asking us to go to the front lines and go and do those things but that was something we just graciously said, ‘That’s not what we’re here for.’”
They spent 13 days in the city of Odesa, the third-largest city in the country. Before the invasion, it was a primary spot for tourism and Ackley described it as a beautiful city. But now, McCall detailed the state of the once-popular destination. “Every time you turned a corner, there’s military barricades. All the signs said something about the war, like billboards and stuff. Those things were real and going on but there were sirens that went off pretty frequently.” And yet, Ackley and McCall said that they felt very safe.
“The eastern side is where Kosovo and everything that they’ve been attacking historically so we were a little bit a ways away from that and truthfully, that was one of the things that was a big deal in the sense that we felt called to go but at the same time but neither one of us are soldiers,” Ackley said.
As surgeons, the stressful environment would seem to be a hindrance, but not to Ackley and McCall. “I don’t think I felt any different. I felt the exact same,” Ackley said.
“I think some of the anticipation of getting there, not knowing what we’re getting ourselves into, only knowing what we see on the news, leaves you to kind of wonder what it’s going to be like,” McCall said. “There was talk of ‘You’re going to have a bulletproof vest and a helmet. You’re going to wear it all the time and make sure your phones are wrapped in foil so no one knows where you are. And if you go for a run, you can only run that same route once and then you’ve gotta switch it up.’ You know, different things that made it sound like very undercoverish or whatever and it was like, ‘I guess that sounds okay.’ When we got there, some of the angst quickly went away when we realized a lot of – the way I describe it – the city in itself, people were out doing things. They were running restaurants or businesses, going to work, so the city was still hustle and bustle.”
Life goes on, as do surgeries. McCall recounted a time that he was in the operating room when the sirens went off. “I’m not even sure I noticed it until one of the surgeons we were with was like, ‘Do you wanna go down to the basement cause the sirens are going off.’ And I was like, ‘Well, are ya’ll going to the basement?’ and they were like, ‘No,’ and I was like, ‘Well I guess I’m not going to the basement.’ You know, you just stay and do your thing. But it never felt like we were in harm’s way.”
Ackley and McCall are already planning to return to Ukraine and offer more aid to the people. “We set up great relationships with local hospitals there so [we want] to go back and teach surgery to anybody we could. There was a pediatric hospital that they were excited for us to be able to help out with just because I think a lot of the resources haven’t gone there, so any way we can help there,” Ackley said.
Beyond medical help, they are also drawn to the orphan crisis currently going on throughout Ukraine. One of the groups that Ackley works with is Unbound Now which deals with human trafficking, a major issue in Ukraine. On their next trip to Ukraine, he hopes to get his family involved with the orphan crisis, but ultimately, “Our heart is a yes [to return to Ukraine] and we’re just kinda waiting to see what the Lord opens up what we need to do.”
For anyone who wants to provide support to Ukraine, Ackley and McCall both point to Acts of Mercy, a disaster response group that empowers local church groups to go and meet the practical needs of people. “Realizing sometimes that is healthcare, but other times it’s construction, there’s multiple different avenues and different ways,” Ackley explained.
“I second that,” McCall added. “I actually did have a physical therapist reach out to me about going because one of the needs was physical therapy and psychiatry. Obvious ones when you think about a country at war. Those are needs on the medical side but I would echo what Freeland [Ackley] said. I mean, there’s so much that needs to be done, whether it be with orphan care or distributing food. If someone is interested, Acts of Mercy would probably be a good place to start.” Currently, the group is in Poland, helping with food distribution for Ukrainian refugees.
Ackley and McCall hope that others are inspired to help in any way they can. “I think that it’s just a commitment to say yes and if people want to do it they can absolutely find a way to get in there,” Ackley said.
Photos courtesy of Freeland Ackley and David McCall