OSF HealthCare’s Chris Manson talks effort to send ambulances to Ukraine

OSF HealthCare’s Chris Manson talks effort to send ambulances to Ukraine

A year ago, Chris Manson, OSF HealthCare vice president of government relations, didn’t expect to send 28 ambulances and a fire engine to Ukraine. Now, he has a goal of sending more than 40 ambulances.

Manson leveraged his government affairs expertise to further that mission, but the initiative has an unlikely source of inspiration. After watching the news with her dad and learning about the conflict in Ukraine, Manson’s daughter asked, “Is there something we could do to help?” That got Manson thinking.

Manson recently spoke to Health News Illinois about his work. Edited excerpts below:

HNI: After your daughter asked about helping Ukraine, what were your next thoughts?

CM: I work for OSF HealthCare. I used to be in the military. I’ve been a volunteer firefighter. I put all those pieces together and landed on the idea: Maybe I can find an ambulance. I know they’re being destroyed in this invasion. If I could find one, get the supplies and get it over to Ukraine, maybe that’d be helpful.

HNI: How did you turn the idea into an actual, actionable plan?

CM: The funny thing is … getting (the ambulance) over to Ukraine would be the easy part. Then I thought, ‘But where do I find them?’ That’d be the difficult thing. If I could find one, I’m sure I can talk to somebody who can figure something out to maybe get some space on the military aircraft that’s headed over to Ukraine.

Within a day of deciding this is what I wanted to do, I was making a few phone calls and reached out to my employer … OSF said, ‘Yeah, find the ambulance, and we will help fill it with supplies.’ All right, so I got supplies. Then, for getting an ambulance, I reached out to (Advanced Medical Transport) of Central Illinois and talked to a great guy there, Andrew Rand. I just said, ‘Hey, I got this really crazy idea … Is there a chance you can give me an ambulance or help me find one?’

His only response was a question back to me: ‘What do you want, gas or diesel?’

Within less than 24 hours of conceiving the idea, I had the ambulance, I had supplies. Then it was all about trying to get it over Ukraine.

I reached out to the Ukrainian government, actually the consulate in Chicago. They put me in contact with a couple of groups … They left some space for one ambulance, and, on March 29, that first ambulance from Peoria was on that 747 headed to Europe and to Poland and then into Ukraine.

HNI: And then what happened?

CM: After the first one got loaded … the need just continued to grow. I got a call the next day or the day after from the Ukrainian government. They said, ‘That’s great you got that ambulance. The need is huge. Any chance you can get 20 more?’

I reached out to some friends over at another health system … By Tuesday, I had a yes, and, by Wednesday, I had that ambulance on a flatbed truck headed to Chicago.

At that point, I thought, ‘I want to go over to Ukraine and just check in … to make sure the need is what I’m hearing it is.’

While I was still there, I’m putting the message out that they still need more ambulances. While I was in Ukraine, I learned that I was going to get three more from Minnesota, so I got back from Ukraine, and three more ambulances were on the way to our warehouses in Chicago. I created a Twitter feed called US Ambulances for Ukraine and started spreading the word … After that, I started getting additional ambulances. That’s basically how it works — 28 ambulances and one fire engine right now.

HNI: What have been some of the things that you’ve learned during your trips to Ukraine, as you talk to your peers and people in the government?

CM: One thing I’ve learned is (Ukrainians) value their freedom across the board, which has been very inspiring. Anyone you talk to, they’ll just tell you, ‘We want to just be free’ … Also, I’ll say, they’ll fight until the bitter end.

Some of the ambulances have messages from the United States … I’ve seen men, women, children, soldiers — I’ve seen every different type of person crying when they read some of these messages. These ambulances and the fire engine mean life and death for people. Obviously (the vehicles) would be nothing without the people operating them, but they don’t have these vehicles.

It’s been touching and it’s moved me to just see people really happy and excited to get these vehicles, but also it means lots of people are donating. It’s the Addison fire department. It’s the Naperville Fire Department. It’s the El Paso rescue squad. It’s AMT of Central Illinois. It’s Tracy Ambulance or A-TEC Ambulance. These guys have gone above and beyond.

HNI: You’ve received recognition for this work, from being invited to the State of the Union to receiving commendations from the Ukrainian government. What does it mean to you to see your work being acknowledged like this?

CM: I’m incredibly grateful for the recognition, and I really appreciate where everyone’s coming from … But the reality of it is, I don’t deserve to have attention on me. There are a lot of entities that make this possible. I’d be nowhere if my daughter didn’t ask the question. I’d be nowhere if Rand at AMT of Central Illinois or my sisters at OSF didn’t say “yes” right off the bat … I just happened to be the one that’s kind of been at the forefront … I’m incredibly humbled, but I will tell you that it’s not just Chris Manson. There are so many people doing so much and are constantly doing work nonstop. I hope everyone gets the recognition that they deserve.

HNI: What’s next for this initiative?

CM: I think I’ve got three more fire engines, and I’ve got six, maybe seven, ambulances … My goal is to be somewhere around 45 or 50 ambulances at some point, and at least five or maybe 10 engines, if it’s possible. It depends on the donors. It depends on people being willing to help us ship the vehicles overseas. But, if the need is there in Ukraine, and there’s a desire for people to help out in this way, then I would see myself very likely continuing to work on this … I’ve made so many friends in Ukraine since this has begun. I want to make sure that they have the tools that they need.

– Ryan Voyles and Elizabeth Casolo for Health News Illinois

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