Nataliya Kovalchuk was just a six-year-old girl living in Ukraine when the nuclear meltdown known as the Chornobyl disaster occurred. Geiger-Müller counters, a device used for the detection of ionizing radiation, were everywhere, constantly pinging dangerous levels of radiation in the area. The Ukrainian soil was toxic, its rain acidic, and its population poisoned. Kovalchuk remembers being one of many Ukrainian children packed into a crowded hospital room like sardines in a tin can, suffering from hepatitis most likely caused by radionuclide accumulation in the liver. Witnessing a young girl named Marichka, a new found friend sick with leukemia pass away while she was in hospital, was a memory she could never forget and something that informed her path to becoming a physicist in the field of radiation oncology.
Kovalchuk is a clinical associate professor of radiation oncology. She has lived in the United States for over half of her life, after moving for graduate school. A member of the department’s medical physics division, her recent research efforts have been focused on bringing Volumetric Modulated Arc Therapy (VMAT) to the clinic, a radiotherapy technique that delivers continuous doses of radiation as the linear accelerator rotates to the whole body to treat kids with leukemia, like Marichka. Kovalchuk has also been one of the driving forces in piloting a new form of radiotherapy known as biology-guided radiotherapy at Stanford.
Her efforts in radiation oncology don’t stop at the clinic, however. Today, her country faces a much different crisis than the Chornobyl disaster nearly 40 years ago. When Russian forces, directed by Putin, invaded Ukraine early last year, Kovalchuk fought for her country in a different way: providing aid to oncology programs across Ukraine.
“When the full-scale invasion started in February last year, I started reaching out to Ukrainian oncology providers, asking them how we could support them,” Kovalchuk said. With help from friends across the globe, this effort eventually transformed into an international group “Help Ukraine Group,” or, “HUG,” made up of 12 oncology practitioners, with the goal of supporting and providing aid to Ukrainian cancer centers.
Even before the full-scale invasion, Kovalchuk stated that roughly 17% of Ukrainian cancer centers were under occupation, leaving an impacted workflow for the remaining clinics across the country. In just over a year of war, 1,218 Ukrainian health facilities have been damaged, including 540 hospitals, 173 of which were completely destroyed, as stated by Ukraine’s Minister of Health. Additionally, more than half of the country’s radiotherapy cancer centers carry out treatments using outdated Cobalt-60 machines. Together, Kovalchuk and HUG members have been steadily providing aid in the form of medical supplies and software to automate treatment workflow and help train Ukrainian physicians and medical physicists.
“This group works on multiple fronts. We try to support Ukrainian cancer centers with medical supplies, with software and hardware,” she said. “We also petition academic institutions across the world to invite oncology practitioners to train abroad.”
Kovalchuk is in close communication with oncologists in Ukraine, who relay what topics would be of best use for them. HUG relies on the volunteering and selfless effort of oncology practitioners from the Ukrainian Society of Medical Oncology and the Ukrainian Association of Medical Physicists, and many others. Most recently, radiation oncologists in Ukraine requested help with learning radiotherapy contouring.
So, Kovalchuk petitioned for access to “Anatomy and Radiology Contouring Bootcamp,” created by Dr. David Palma, MD, PhD, a radiation oncologist from Western University for Ukrainian radiation oncologists, residents and medical physicists. Dr. Palma graciously agreed to provide it for free.
“It’s in high demand,” she remarked. “150 radiation oncologists, residents, and medical physicists signed up for these courses in less than two days.”
Currently, Kovalchuk is working to create a Stanford-based radiation oncology training course, gathering a list of radiation oncologists and physicists within the department who are interested in giving lectures, and applying for funding to provide translation for radiation oncology lectures. “There is definitely a language barrier,” she said. “But even if [the lecture is] in English, they’re very useful.”
To date, Stanford Healthcare has donated over $415,000 worth of medical supplies, an effort partly spearheaded by Kovalchuk. She has also worked together with a group of Stanford medical students led by Solomiia Savchuk to help create a MIMCloud depository of medical images for the app called “TeleHelp Ukraine,” a non-profit organization that provides free medical and mental health support to Ukrainians affected by the war.
While these selfless humanitarian efforts and projects keep Kovalchuk busy, her thoughts always return to her family members still in the country.
“All my family except for my parents and brother are back home in Ukraine,” she said. “My cousin is fighting in the war. I worry about them every day.”
While a majority of her family lives in the relatively safer region of Western Ukraine, they are very much in the active zone of bombing at any given time. At the time of interviewing, Kovalchuk mentioned that some 80-odd missiles were launched at the whole of Ukraine the day before, killing at least five in Western Ukraine, just miles from her hometown.
Still, she finds solace in the strength of her country.
“I try to shield myself from all of the atrocities and horrific things I’ve seen on social media and on the news,” she said. “But I cannot shield myself from kindness. Whenever I see kindness I get tears in my eyes, I see so much kindness from people around me, everyone who has lent a hand in this fight. It’s absolutely inspiring.” Kovalchuk and HUG are grateful to many radiotherapy vendors supporting Ukraine.
Today, Kovalchuk continues her pledge to help her homeland. On Monday, she’s applying to any funding opportunities she can to get educational resources and opportunities to Ukrainian doctors. By Friday, she’s petitioning 3rd-party vendors to donate software meant to streamline cancer treatment processes. Just recently, she secured funding from Stanford Global Studies to sponsor at least six visiting Ukrainian medical scholars to study at Stanford, and together with Global Medical Knowledge Alliance’s (GMKA) founder and Harvard surgeon, Dr. Nelya Melnitchouk, MD, has locked down additional funding from groups like the Union for International Cancer Control to help train even more. “Initiated by Andriy Beznosenko, together with Nelya’s group, Help Ukraine Group secured 24 training positions abroad for Ukrainian oncology practitioners,” said Kovalchuk.
And although the aftershocks of this horrific war will be felt for years to come, Kovalchuk remains hopeful, saying “I always feel I don’t do enough, that there are always more things to do. But it’s amazing and inspiring to see how Ukrainian society comes together. Like bees in a beehive, everybody’s doing something. We are stronger as one beehive, and eventually, we can put our forces and minds together to rebuild our country.”