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'It was incredibly important for me to get them here' | Ukrainian nurse reunites with family

For many of us, Russia's invasion of Ukraine is hard to grasp because it's so far away. But for one Bemidji nurse, the battle is right at her doorstep.

BEMIDJI, Minn. — Healthcare workers embody compassion and teamwork in a way most will never know. Olha Finnelly knows that all too well.

Olha is originally from the city of Dnipro in eastern Ukraine. Olha fell in love with a Minnesota man and moved to Bemidji. Burnt out from years of work in financial institutions, she decided to try her hand at nursing, quickly discovering a newfound passion.

"Oh, Olha's wonderful. She's very kind, very nice, accommodates us, helps us. We all work well as a team here," said Kim Schulz, a medical laboratory scientist at Sanford Bemidji.

"I really enjoy being a nurse," said Finnelly. "I'm feeling happier every day if I could help somebody."

Olha’s supervisor Erin Petrowske says she's quick to handle whatever task walks in, from shots to rooming patients. Her co-workers took note of her positive attitude and eagerness to help people.

"I feel that every day we do changes in somebody's life, and hopefully one day [it] will be one big change for somebody," said Finnelly. 

Olha selflessly carried on with her work, unaware of the changes she would soon face in her own life.

The news that Russia invaded Ukraine sent shockwaves around the world. The situation hit hardest for those who still have family there. That's the situation Olha faced. Her parents, sister, brother-in-law, and 3-year-old niece were in the destruction's path.

"She would come to work and say bits and pieces about what was going on," said Petrowske. 

When Olha described what Ukraninans are going through, she said everybody's scared. Every 30 minutes an alarm goes off, which means a missile is flying, and nobody knows where it will land.

"When she started opening up [there were] lots of tears, lots of distraction for her. You could tell she was thinking of her family," said Schulz.

A cell phone was her only connection to her loved ones.

"You don't know [whenever] we talk and hang up on the phone-- you think was that the last conversation," Finnelly said. "It was incredibly important for me to get them here."

Olha's dad and brother-in-law are still in Ukraine. Men ages 18-60 were required to stay. The women in Olha's life fled to Poland. 

Since all international airports were bombed, they had to take a 22 hour train ride from Dnipro to Lviv. There were 16 people in each room instead of four. They only had their backpacks, leaving everything else behind.

RELATED: Twin Cities-based nonprofit launches food box project to help feed Ukrainians

"To listen to what they're all going through just to get here— we've never experienced it. We probably never would," said Schulz.

That's when Olha's co-workers stepped in, determined to take care of one of their own. They sent an email to Sanford employees, laying out Olha's situation. Within no time, help poured in.

With the money raised, Olha bought plane tickets from Poland to Minnesota for her mother, sister, and niece. They reunited in March.

"When I got all this help I was just touched beyond words," said Finnelly.

Credit: Olha Finnelly

People gave more than the gift of money; they also gave clothing, toys, and even a bike to her niece.

"When I  moved to Bemidji, I could never even imagine that I would find my second family," said Finnelly. 

Luckily for Olha's family, they were supposed to visit the U.S. a couple of years ago and already had open tourist visas. They're allowed to stay only through September.

"We are hoping that it will somehow be extended," said Finnelly. "We are just all hoping that it will be over as soon as possible because every day and every hour more and more people get hurt."

In the meantime, her family is doing what they can to show their gratitude, like baking food for the people who gave so that they could be safe. 

"I put in the word friend a lot of meaning. And I truly want to say that I have a lot of friends in Bemidji. If they ever need help, I will be there for them," said Finnelly. 

They're still accepting donations for this family to help with expenses. There's an Olha Finnelly Ukrainian Fund set up at the Bemidji branch of First National Bank.

RELATED: 'I know it was hard for my mom, but she made it': Ukrainian mother reunited with daughter for Mother's Day

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