Retired businessman Gary Wasserson had never worked in the nonprofit world, but today he calls himself a humanitarian.
The 67-year-old former telecommunications industry executive from Philadelphia is in the midst of a full-fledged second act that began in 2022 after Russia launched an all-out attack on Ukraine. When Wasserson’s wife made him aware they had relatives in Ukraine, he didn’t miss a beat. In March 2022, he flew to Poland, where he assembled a network to help extract his relatives and other Ukrainians from their war-torn home country, in true grassroots fashion.
He has since relied on what he calls a “team of angels,” made up of professionals and volunteers to extract hundreds more Ukrainians. His efforts have also expanded beyond bringing relatives and strangers to safety to helping wounded Ukrainians receive prosthetics and more.
In Ukraine, through a videographer friend of his daughter’s documenting the war, he was also connected to Vladyslav Orlov, a special operations Ukrainian soldier who in October had been severely injured by a Russian explosive device.
“My experience was a very bad experience. I was blown up by Russians — something blew up in my car,” Orlov, 27, told CBS News. “I was stuck in the car and my teammates helped me out. I lost a little piece of my left foot and both of my legs were broken,” he explained.
Orlov received immediate care on the front lines and at two different hospitals in Ukraine that he credits with saving his life. But it quickly became clear that he would require extensive surgical and reconstructive work, plus skin grafts, to eventually regain full use of his limbs. That’s when Wasserson stepped in.
Finding a hospital
Wasserson called the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, ranked as the top orthopedic hospital in the U.S. and a leader in trauma care, where his wife had previously undergone back surgery. He asked if it would take on Orlov’s case.
“They didn’t even say, ‘Let me see.’ They said, ‘Absolutely, if his case is something we can treat, we want him here as soon as possible,'” Wasserson told CBS MoneyWatch.
A team of surgeons at HSS, including orthopedic trauma surgeon Dr. Duretti Fufa, reviewed Orlov’s x-rays and other medical records remotely to evaluate the scope of his complex bone and soft tissue injuries as well as open skin wounds.
“They reached out to me given the soft tissue injuries, and I agreed we’d be able to help in this case,” Dr. Fufa told CBS MoneyWatch.
She emphasized that the initial care Orlov received in Ukraine, including surgeries to the tibia and fibula bones in both of his legs, was critical to saving his life and limbs. “He had limb-saving surgeries in Ukraine, and had he not had surgery by their skilled surgeons there, he would not have been able to keep legs.”
Orlov’s girlfriend, Ashley Matkowsky, an American documentary filmmaker whom he met in Ukraine during the war, was also instrumental in helping ensure that he got the necessary care.
“She compiled his records from physicians who treated him at both a government and private hospital, and we liaised with her,” Dr. Fufa said.
Wasserson also reached out to a United Airlines board member, who arranged for the airline to cover the cost of Orlov’s flights to the U.S.
Funding 100% of the care
At HSS, Orlov has already undergone a number of procedures, from which he is currently healing. In Ukraine, it was unclear if he’d be able to keep his legs. Today, thanks to HSS, it looks increasingly like they will someday be fully functional again, according to Fufa. He is currently recovering from his surgeries; his medical team is monitoring him and will evaluate his condition once his bones heal.
HSS is covering the cost of all of Orlov’s medical care, while Wasserson is sponsoring him under the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Uniting for Ukraine program. It allows Ukrainians to come to the U.S. for two years, provided that they have a supporter in the states to claim financial responsibility for them.
“I have agreed to take full responsibility for any financial issues related to his housing, health care, all of that,” Wasserson said of Orlov, who currently resides in an HSS-owned living unit in New York City.
His medical care and housing expenses are being paid for through HSS’s charity care program, according to Laura Robbins, head of global partnerships for the hospital.
“When these cases come to us, we evaluate them make a determination as to whether we can treat them,” she told CBS MoneyWatch. “And we commit to funding 100% of their care.”
“A key part of why people will seek out HSS is because of the clinical expertise to do the things they did with Orlov, which is take a shot at trying to save his legs,” Robbins said. “We’re known in the trauma world for really having the expertise and experience to say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we can save this gentleman’s legs, which is what they’re trying to do.'”
“You can get almost anything done”
As Orlov recovers, Wasserson’s efforts to help Ukrainians escape the war continue. U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, recently honored Wasserson at the U.S. House of Representatives.
“He has helped build an entire support network coming to the aid of Ukrainians in need, assisting in the successful extractions of thousands of Ukrainians to safe havens in Poland, Slovakia, Moldova and across Western Europe,” she said.
Wasserson said he’s working more now as a retiree than when he was employed.
“I am busier now than when I was working full-time because then, it wasn’t lives — it was profits and losses, it was balance sheets. This is a whole different ball game,” he said. “In business, the urgency is always there to get the best results for your shareholders. But this is a stakeholder issue that is unparalleled to anything I have ever done in my life.”
Ultimately, he chocks up his ability to make a difference to the network he’s been building over the past 12 months.
“It’s like any other business. People ultimately make the difference, and if you know how to network properly you can get almost anything done in the world,” Wasserson said. “You need a lot of common sense. If you don’t have the ability to understand what buttons to push to make things happen, you’re going to go in circles.”
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