RIO RANCHO, N.M. (KRQE) – As the conflict in Ukraine continues, so does the effort to help from our shores. One local physician volunteered his expertise overseas to help those displaced by the war zone and recalled his experience there.

Dr. Matthew Wilks, the chief medical officer at UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center in Rio Rancho, saw the conflict playing out on-screen. When he received an opportunity to help the situation, he was called to action.

“The day after the war started in Ukraine I received an email requesting my availability to go help,” Wilks says, “Within a couple of days I was on a plane to Poland.”

Wilks says he spent a week there as part of Team Rubicon—a non-governmental disaster response organization—meeting with health organizations about how he could help refugees fleeing there.

However, he quickly realized the real medical need was across the border, in western Ukraine. “I was going from Poland into Ukraine and there might have been ten or 15 people in the line heading in that direction. And then, once I crossed the border, and I was in Ukraine, there was a line of people—five or six people across—that extended at least a mile, maybe a mile and a half,” Wilks says.

As an emergency physician, Wilks treats people from all walks of life and felt like his skill set would be useful in this crisis situation. However, this mission was a little different.

“Typically, I go out and I’m providing direct patient care but for this particular deployment with Team Rubicon I was part of the advance team, and so I was getting things set up for the team to come in to provide the direct patient care,” Wilks says.

Wilks says his team usually responds to natural disasters where the power and water are out, “but in this case, the infrastructure at least where I was, was intact, and people were in a society that had resources, but the resources were becoming overwhelmed.”

Despite a Russian missile hitting an airport three miles from their location, Wilks says he wasn’t scared.

Wilks recalls the scene as eerily normal— with businesses still running, infrastructure still intact, and power still on —but blockades, security checkpoints manned by armed soldiers, and air raid sirens were constant reminders that this situation is anything but.

“There were constant reminders that this was a war zone, even though things on the surface appeared fairly normal…from my perspective on the ground, it is very different to look into a person’s eyes and see that this is an individual whose life has been disrupted, and it’s very different from just seeing images on TV,” Wilks says.

Wilks reports seeing a lot of exhaustion in the fleeing refugees, as well as environmental exposure from the cold, and mental anguish. “A lot of people had seen things that were difficult to process,” Wilks says.

He says he wants his experience to serve as a reminder: “This is still an ongoing humanitarian crisis and so I think that it’s just really important for people to understand that.”

Wilks returned stateside Saturday, after three weeks in Poland and Ukraine. He says Team Rubicon continues to work in the area and will stay as long as there is a need for them. In addition to providing care there, Team Rubicon has already trained over 750 local medical personnel.