Russian-born dentist does pro bono dental work for Ukrainian refugee

On a recent morning in Solana Beach, Olena Vorobiova sat down for a dental procedure delayed by the war in Ukraine.

“We are in a very serious and heartbreaking situation,” Vorobiova said in translated Russian. “We have nothing other than our travel suitcases and are completely dependent on the volunteers helping us.”

Vorobiova is from Ukraine’s capital city Kyiv. She was on vacation in Mexico with her husband and teenage son when Russia invaded. The family sought haven in the United States by crossing the border in San Ysidro.

Months later, there is still no escape from the horrors of war.

“People don’t understand what we are going through,” Vorobiova said wiping away tears. “Several times a day I am getting text messages from friends and family with the deaths of loved ones.”

Once in San Diego, Vorobiova and her family moved into a host-home with La Jolla resident Jane Wehrmeister.

“I had seen everything that was going on down at the border,” Wehrmeister said. “How people were able to come across under humanitarian parole, but I thought where do they go once they cross the border?”

Wehrmeister has been helping the family adjust to life in San Diego.

With the assistance of Google Translate, she learned that Vorobiova was in the middle of a dental procedure before Russia invaded. Unable to return to Ukraine and finish the work, she reached out to the San Diego County Dental Society and found dentist Elona Gaball with Inspire Smiles.

“Maybe I can’t stop the war but I can make it better for the people here so that was an immediate, ‘Yes,’ I responded right away,” Gaball said.

Gaball is originally from Russia.

“Me having this unique skill of speaking Russian, being there for them being able to communicate and also a large part of what we do is to give back,” Gaball said. “So any opportunity I have to give back, especially considering people are here because of the war, not by choice.”

Some of Gaball’s family is still in Russia. Offering Vorobiova dental services is not without risk.

“I’m taking a step of courage,” Gaball said. “I’m almost certain it’s going to negatively impact perhaps my family but I’m just stepping in courage because the principle of right is more important.”

Vorobiova is having four crowns replaced, typically costing around $18,000, but Gaball is not charging her.

Gaball is experienced in pro bono work.

Her nonprofit Inspire Changes provides free dental restorations for sex-trafficking victims. She measures success with how much she can give and encourages others to do the same.

“Be generous,” Gaball said. “Not just giving, step beyond that and be extra generous with time and anything you can contribute to making another life better. I feel that’s the best way to be in the world and make the world a better place. Be the change.”

Vorobiova is thankful for all the help. But the disruption of the war in her homeland hovers over her family. She said in Ukraine, her teenage son is an international karate competitor.

“As a mom I feel completely helpless as I can not do anything for my child,” Vorobiova said. “He is extremely depressed and barely communicates. He locks himself in a room, puts headphones on and does not even speak to me. He is so young. He can’t just sit in a room all by himself without anything to do.”

Vorobiova wants to be independent and is seeking work permits.

“We want people to understand that we have no say in the situation, we are prisoners of our circumstances,” she said. “We just want to go home.“

Shortly after arriving in San Diego, Vorobiova’s daughter and grandson also made it to the U.S. With the help of Wehrmeister, the family was recently able to enroll in CalFresh and Medi-Cal. Work permits are still an issue. A law firm is trying to help expedite the process.



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