First published in the March 24 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
Descanso Pediatrics head physician Dr. John Rodarte is back home safe and sound, but his heart still aches for those he met after recently traveling to Ukraine on a humanitarian mission to rescue two dozen special-needs orphans from the war-torn country.
Rodarte teamed up with a global group of volunteers for the mission led by nonprofit organizations Exitus and Third Wave Volunteers, as more than 3.5 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia began attacking on Feb. 24. Millions more have been displaced within the country. Though the pediatrician first signed up to help extricate 23 identified children — who were expected to be quite ill due to lack of access to medication and medical attention — Rodarte quickly shifted when it became apparent the mission could not be completed. With much of the country’s communications systems shut down, the children and their guardians could not be found.
“What we thought was going to be a quick grab and run turned into a ‘maybe, then maybe not.’ It was frustrating, but that is war and we had to keep people safe,” Rodarte said. “I’m still trying to process everything that happened and what we saw.”
He recounted incidents he and the team witnessed at the Romanian border with Ukraine. The nonprofit organizations along the border assembled a variety of tents to help process the refugees and distribute medical supplies, blankets and hot food and drink to offset the frigid temperatures.
There were the inconsolable women and children saying goodbye to their husbands and fathers, who stayed behind to fight. There were children struggling with their tiny roller backpacks, containing all the worldly possessions they could carry from home. One girl clutched only her small dog, trying to keep him warm. But perhaps the most difficult, Rodarte said, was watching the women having to decide where to go live, for who knows how long, in a matter of minutes.
“They really had to decide right then, upon arrival, where they would go to next and then go start the process,” he noted. “But these people were also in a state of shock after everything they had to go through just to leave.”
As the head of pediatrics at the Huntington Hospital affiliate Descanso Pediatrics in La Cañada Flintridge, Rodarte has long been familiar with rescue operations. He is part of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department volunteer Montrose Search and Rescue team, and is co-founder of Healing Hearts Across Borders, a mobile medical nonprofit that makes regular trips to Mexico to offer care for the poor and uninsured.
After friends and fellow volunteers at the Montrose Search and Rescue, Mike Leum and Jack Osbourne, told Rodarte about the medical mission to Ukraine, the whole trip came together in less than a week: “It very quickly went from ‘wow this could happen’ to ‘wow this is happening,’” he noted. “My coworkers very quickly came around to cover and fill in for me.”
The team flew into Bucharest and then drove seven hours of treacherous, icy mountain roads to reach the border. Rodarte jumped in to help wherever he could, playing peekaboo and board games with the children, “just trying to let the kids be kids for a bit.”
According to UNICEF, the country has an estimated 100,000 orphans and that number is expected to rise as hundreds of children continue to flee the country unaccompanied. Though Rodarte said he would love to return to continue the mission, he isn’t sure he can leave his patients. The goal remains to find the orphans and fly them to the United States on a chartered medical flight, where they will be united with adoptive families.
“These special needs kids are, from what we understand, also quite ill — many of them are malnourished and no longer receiving medications once the war started,” said Rodarte, noting that he is driven by just wanting to help.
“There’s so much that is wrong with the world in the last few years. These kids have been through COVID, and then the world as they knew it and the rug was just pulled out from under them again. When you find a situation like that and you get asked to utilize your skills … To me, it was kind of a no-brainer to do that.”
Huntington Hospital President and CEO Lori Morgan said she was touched to learn about the mission and Rodarte’s humanitarian effort to rescue the orphans.
“This was a dangerous mission,” she said, “yet he answered the call to jump in and use his expertise as a pediatrician. His heroic efforts embody what drives caregivers the most — to care for those who need it. We are fortunate to have him as one of our Huntington physicians.”