Caitlin Saxtein, a speech pathologist at Peconic Bay Medical Center,...

Caitlin Saxtein, a speech pathologist at Peconic Bay Medical Center, was part of a mission last year to help patients in Ukraine with war injuries. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

Bearing witness to marred faces, working amid howling air raid sirens and hearing the stories of wounded soldiers are experiences Caitlin Saxtein said she'll never forget after being part of a humanitarian mission to Ukraine.

Saxtein, a 35-year-old speech pathologist, returned home to Westhampton Beach in November after traveling to the country's western city of Lviv to treat Ukrainian soldiers recovering from facial injuries suffered in the war with Russia.

In a rehab unit, Saxtein helped them learn how to talk, sip and swallow again. Determined to regain autonomy, Saxtein said many asked her the same question: When can I get back to the battlefield?

“To see these patients who voluntarily went into war because they have so much pride for their country, it changes your perspective,” Saxtein said. 

The Riverhead native joined the weeklong mission last year as a volunteer with the program Face to Face, which provides free facial reconstruction surgeries around the world. Saxtein works at Peconic Bay Medical Center, where hospital officials recently called attention to her participation in the mission.

It was the program's third trip to Ukraine, but the first to include speech pathologists, according to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery's foundation, a nonprofit that runs the program.

Saxtein joined a fellow speech language pathologist from Connecticut and a team of 25 doctors and nurses from across the country in caring for about 32 patients, both soldiers and civilians, organizers said. 

The war began in February 2022. The United Nations said in late February as the war entered its third year that at least 30,457 civilians had been killed or injured, mostly from explosive weapons, Newsday previously reported. Western officials have estimated hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides have died or been wounded. 

Sometimes working 16-hour days on the November mission, surgeons repaired facial injuries and reconstructed eye sockets, cheekbones and jaws with titanium implants, according to Dr. Sherard Tatum, of Syracuse, president of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

Tatum, who also volunteered on the mission, said having speech pathologists along was helpful since those reconstructive procedures can affect patients' ability to eat, breathe and communicate during their recovery.

“Those are all things that our brains do in the background for us,” Tatum, 64, said in a recent interview. “We’re trying to give them their life back as best we can.”

Both Saxtein and Tatum described the Ukrainian people as “amazingly brave” and resilient.

“Nobody's going to beat them,” Tatum said. “They will fight with kitchen appliances and farm implements if they have to, but they're never going to give up.”

In Lviv, Saxtein worked with patients after traumatic brain injuries to improve slurred speech and helped recovering stroke patients.

She said she also got to exercise her skills as a board-certified swallowing disorder specialist, helping lead what mission officials said was the first fiber-optic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing by speech language pathologists in Ukraine.

Saxtein also co-hosted an academic day teaching more than 300 local speech language pathologists in Lviv about topics that included dysphagia, the medical term for difficulty swallowing.

“Not only did we go there to help them, but we went there to teach them what to do so that they can then implement those services in their own country,” Saxtein said.

She plans to continue those sessions virtually this spring.  

That exchange of information is a central part of the program's mission, according to senior adviser and trip leader Dr. Manoj Abraham, of Poughkeepsie. Surgeons on the trip also hosted sessions to teach their Ukrainian counterparts about techniques like using parts of the fibula bone in the leg to rebuild missing jaw parts.

“Thirty two patients are better off, but it’s a drop in the bucket unfortunately given the war there,” Abraham, 52, said in an interview Friday.

Bearing witness to marred faces, working amid howling air raid sirens and hearing the stories of wounded soldiers are experiences Caitlin Saxtein said she'll never forget after being part of a humanitarian mission to Ukraine.

Saxtein, a 35-year-old speech pathologist, returned home to Westhampton Beach in November after traveling to the country's western city of Lviv to treat Ukrainian soldiers recovering from facial injuries suffered in the war with Russia.

In a rehab unit, Saxtein helped them learn how to talk, sip and swallow again. Determined to regain autonomy, Saxtein said many asked her the same question: When can I get back to the battlefield?

“To see these patients who voluntarily went into war because they have so much pride for their country, it changes your perspective,” Saxtein said. 

Wartime Mission

  • 25: Number of medical professionals on program's November mission
  • 32: Number of Ukrainian patients aided during the mission
  • 30,457: Minimum number of civilians killed or injured in Ukraine

Sources: Face to Face, United Nations

The Riverhead native joined the weeklong mission last year as a volunteer with the program Face to Face, which provides free facial reconstruction surgeries around the world. Saxtein works at Peconic Bay Medical Center, where hospital officials recently called attention to her participation in the mission.

It was the program's third trip to Ukraine, but the first to include speech pathologists, according to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery's foundation, a nonprofit that runs the program.

Saxtein joined a fellow speech language pathologist from Connecticut and a team of 25 doctors and nurses from across the country in caring for about 32 patients, both soldiers and civilians, organizers said. 

The war began in February 2022. The United Nations said in late February as the war entered its third year that at least 30,457 civilians had been killed or injured, mostly from explosive weapons, Newsday previously reported. Western officials have estimated hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides have died or been wounded. 

Sometimes working 16-hour days on the November mission, surgeons repaired facial injuries and reconstructed eye sockets, cheekbones and jaws with titanium implants, according to Dr. Sherard Tatum, of Syracuse, president of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

Tatum, who also volunteered on the mission, said having speech pathologists along was helpful since those reconstructive procedures can affect patients' ability to eat, breathe and communicate during their recovery.

“Those are all things that our brains do in the background for us,” Tatum, 64, said in a recent interview. “We’re trying to give them their life back as best we can.”

Both Saxtein and Tatum described the Ukrainian people as “amazingly brave” and resilient.

“Nobody's going to beat them,” Tatum said. “They will fight with kitchen appliances and farm implements if they have to, but they're never going to give up.”

In Lviv, Saxtein worked with patients after traumatic brain injuries to improve slurred speech and helped recovering stroke patients.

She said she also got to exercise her skills as a board-certified swallowing disorder specialist, helping lead what mission officials said was the first fiber-optic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing by speech language pathologists in Ukraine.

Saxtein also co-hosted an academic day teaching more than 300 local speech language pathologists in Lviv about topics that included dysphagia, the medical term for difficulty swallowing.

“Not only did we go there to help them, but we went there to teach them what to do so that they can then implement those services in their own country,” Saxtein said.

She plans to continue those sessions virtually this spring.  

That exchange of information is a central part of the program's mission, according to senior adviser and trip leader Dr. Manoj Abraham, of Poughkeepsie. Surgeons on the trip also hosted sessions to teach their Ukrainian counterparts about techniques like using parts of the fibula bone in the leg to rebuild missing jaw parts.

“Thirty two patients are better off, but it’s a drop in the bucket unfortunately given the war there,” Abraham, 52, said in an interview Friday.

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