Meet Dr Lachlan Campbell—the war doctor

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Dr Lachlan Campbell
Photo: Glenn Hunt 

Comradery with animals plays a big part in the life of Dr Lachlan Campbell. So, when the war in Ukraine broke out earlier this year, he wanted to head over to render his assistance. By Tracey Porter

It takes a special individual to uproot their nice suburban life, place themselves in the middle of a war zone in a country with which they have no connection and ask, ‘How can I help?’

Yet when Sunshine Coast veterinarian Dr Lachlan Campbell was confronted with vision of refugee families similar to his own fleeing their homes carrying only meagre possessions, he felt he had little choice.

“War affects everyone, everything. After seeing people bringing their four-legged family members I realised I could help; I had the experience and the skills. I just needed to make it happen. Once the flight was booked, there was no turning back,” he says. 

With no experience navigating the various levels of bureaucracy that come with entering a country in conflict and despite not speaking the language, within weeks the Your PetPA Veterinary Services general manager would find himself on the ground in Ukraine, treating animals almost as broken as the individuals that cared enough to flee with them.

Dr Campbell says while friends and family were troubled by his decision, the 42-year-old worked hard to placate their concerns by assuring them that he would probably not even enter Ukraine itself but instead spend the majority of time on the border assisting animals who had escaped the carnage.

He soon realised his skills were far better utilised at the coalface.

The task ahead

Initially, Dr Campbell worked with local Polish animal welfare not-for-profits Centrum Adopcyjne (ADA) and Dolnośląski Inspektorat Ochrony Zwierząt examining, diagnosing and treating animals brought over the border. “Some animals had been burnt by bombs; one, unable to walk, had a bullet that had to be removed from her spine,” he says.

Another young dog, having being left in a pen for four weeks after his carers had to leave suddenly with the Russian Army advancing, had his back legs chewed off by other dogs. 

War affects everyone, everything. After seeing people bringing their four-legged family members I realised I could help; I had the experience and the skills. I just needed to make it happen. 

Dr Lachlan Campbell, Your PetPA Veterinary Services

Others were riddled with parasites, severely malnourished and dehydrated. 

Yet while conscious of the enormity of the task ahead of him, entering a country at war still came as a major shock to the system, he says. “Delivering food blankets, and much-needed medical supplies to shelters in Ukraine overloaded with animals coming from the front line. Running a pop-up clinic at a university in Lviv which housed 800 refugees and their cats, dogs and some reptiles… [was surreal].”

A few weeks into his month-long stay, Dr Campbell received military permission to enter Irpin, a city north of Kyiv to provide care and evacuate animals in need there. 

He was required to attend a Ukrainian Army briefing during which time he was warned to be very careful because unexploded ordinances were present. The Russians had also mined the area. The warning hit home after the area was evacuated the very next day due to Russian saboteurs.

Trouble with logistics and issues with fuel meant getting to where he was needed also proved difficult, he says.

“Bridges blown and military checkpoints slowed travel significantly. A severe diesel shortage meant we needed meticulous travel plans, and impacted our distance travelled. Travelling at night carried inherent risk—not only due to being unable to pass military checkpoints and get where we needed to get but the risk of Russian attack increased dramatically.”

The good with the bad

Without wishing to appear overly dramatic, Dr Campbell says there were constant reminders of the precariousness of his situation.

Jumping fences, searching backyards, and exploring destroyed apartments for any signs of life was at one time both eerie and memorable, he says. “Particularly knowing I could discover dead people.”

But there were nicer moments too, he says, such as when he was on hand to help rescue a dog that had been abandoned in her pen after the owner’s house had been partially blown up by artillery and survived three to four weeks without food and water.

Dr Lachlan Campbell

Another great moment was handing out teddies to children during an air raid. Then there was the time when he was able to assist with setting up a surgical suite at a shelter, and train local veterinarians in ultrasonography to help them in the future. He was also able to deliver food and veterinary medications to shelters in need, potentially helping hundreds of animals. Such experiences made any sacrifice worthwhile.

The issue of money

Dr Campbell’s initial plan was to fund his trip entirely out of his own savings. However, when friends and family learned of his intentions they wanted to help. He has since set up a GoFundMe page which to date has raised nearly $96,000 from just over 950 donations. 

Dr Campbell says being on the ground in Ukraine has given him the ability to develop networks of trusted contacts and supply chains and view firsthand where the funds are most required. 

Not being affiliated with any particular rescue group gave him the opportunity to assess the needs and move quickly to provide assistance where it’s been needed, he says.

“I am honoured that hundreds of people have donated their money to support the cause. I feel a great sense of responsibility to ensure their donations are spent judiciously and directly help animals affected by this war.”

From his Australian base, Dr Campbell is now working with British charity NOWZAD which is currently focused on redeveloping a shelter in Borodyanka, improving its facilities, and giving users the ability to perform surgery and hospitalise animals.

Separately, he is also supporting several local Ukranian charities by providing veterinary advice, supplies, food and preventatives. 

Mindful that the war is likely to become protracted, he says he wants to ensure animals in need receive longer term support. “I intend to continue to support the plight for as long as is needed. I have just purchased a van which will live and die in Ukraine and is shared among charities. It will be used to transport animals, food and supplies. I will likely head back soon and support those charities I’ve connected with and assist in the shelter upgrade.”

How Aussies can help

Raised on a farm by parents, one a professor of human anatomy and the other a professor of cardiovascular research, Dr Campbell says both instilled in him the importance of having an enjoyable and fulfilling work life. Volunteering has always been important to him because it offers “an added feeling of meaning and purpose”, he says.

I intend to continue to support the plight for as long as is needed. I have just purchased a van which will live and die in Ukraine and is shared among charities. It will be used to transport animals, food and supplies. 

Dr Lachlan Campbell, Your PetPA Veterinary Services

“I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to use the skills I’ve learnt throughout my career and my life in new and unforeseen ways. To step outside the box, find new boundaries and grow as both a veterinarian and as a person.” 

Dr Campbell says while he doesn’t expect every vet to buy a ticket to Eastern Europe to help those who have suffered so much, there is still much the Australian veterinary community can do to assist animals in need.

While there are opportunities to volunteer at various charities in Ukraine, Poland and Romania, these can be difficult to get into and are generally filled by European vets.

Instead practitioners here can assist by collecting critical supplies including veterinary medications and consumables.

“Preventatives are also needed in large numbers with fleas, mites, worms and ticks being a significant problem as coming into summer, ticks transmitting Babesia canis are a big problem in Ukraine.” 

Any donation of any of these critical supplies would be greatly appreciated. Dr Campbell says he is happy to act as a supply chain link should any veterinary clinics, wholesalers, or distributors wish to contribute.

“War is so horrific and people are forced to prioritise—and justifiably so­—themselves and their human families for survival. Animals are, unfortunately, an afterthought to many when they see their friends or family killed, their life is at risk, or their house is bombed. This cause has resonated with so many people because they have thought, ‘What about the animals?’” 

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