Judah Slavkovsky divides his time between his job as a surgeon at a level 1 trauma center at the University of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana, and the world’s most treacherous conflict zones — humanitarian aid opportunities he’s sought out. He was in Afghanistan for eight months after the U.S. withdrawal. He’s made nine humanitarian trips to Eastern Ukraine. He experienced the horrors of Gaza in March of ‘24, where he found the majority of wounded to be women and children. The experience prompted him to write an Op-Ed entitled, “I’m a U.S. Surgeon in Gaza—There Was No Bleach to Treat a Woman’s Wounds,” published by Newsweek (May 22, 2024). Judah is originally from Sisters, and he recently returned, briefly taking residency at Pine Meadow Ranch Center for Arts and Agriculture, to reimagine a training program for conflict-zone surgeons.

Judah teaching in Ukraine

The course he designed at the Ranch is intended for young surgeons who have little experience with the surgical wounds of war, but who are obligated enough to try to help. There’s a specific skill set in order to treat war wounds effectively, says Slavkovsky, which is different than civilian trauma.  He explains that civilian trauma is typically auto accidents, falls and some interpersonal violence like gunshot wounds – and even gunshot wounds are magnified when it comes to military-grade weaponry. “The amount of tissue destruction is many, many, many times worse,” says Slavkovsky. “And that takes a specific sort of knowledge and skill set.” Surgeons in conflict zones also need specific knowledge and skills to treat people that have been through explosions.

To bridge these gaps in knowledge, Slavkovsky has continued to develop a war surgery course. There are few ways for surgeons in a civilian hospital context in a conflict to formally train outside of military institutions. “There’s not a university of war surgery,” he says —though the need for surgical work in war zones is substantial. Slavkovsky gleaned his skills over time, from experienced surgical teams and individual cases in the conflicts in Afghanistan. Most nights he would study. This included reading War Surgery: Working with limited resources in armed conflict and other situations of violence, published by The International Committee of the Red Cross. He describes it as an important textbook on the subject. Now more than two years into his humanitarian surgical work, Slavkovsky is a resource and is making himself available to other humanitarian surgeons around the globe. The in-person course he is leading has the backing of MedGlobal, an NGO, and is held in conjunction with partner organizations including the World Health Organization – Ukraine and Global Response Medicine (GRM).

Surgery team in Afghanistan

Despite connections with a significant network of international organizations and humanitarian groups, growing up in Sisters, Oregon provided a lens for how he approaches work. “Generally, value generation in most organizations is done by a person. And that’s easier to see in a small town,” he explains. “I think that’s an easier sort of fundamental lesson to know.”

Building on this idea of how his home influenced his work, he says,“In large organizations, it’s easy to forget that it really still is about individuals and individual relationships. You’re imparting value and you’re imparting training to individuals. And you succeed or you fail based on your relationships and your ability to collaborate.”

One might think that being in conflict zones and surrounded by devastation would take a toll on a humanitarian surgeon, but Slakovsky has a different attitude around the impact of his work. “I feel like my mental health is better being engaged [in humanitarian work] than living a life just thinking about it once in a while, you know?”  Between his aid trips he grounds himself by visits home to rural Oregon, where he takes hikes in the quiet woods and sunny high-desert to clear his mind.

Ways you can help:

You can support the ongoing work of three organizations involved in caring for patients of active conflicts: EMERGENCY International, ICRC, and MedGlobal.

Published On: June 12th, 2024 / Categories: Pine Meadow Ranch, Pine Meadow Ranch Programs /