Knittel works with the group Doctors Collaborating to Help Children

The teenage twins would be virtually mirror images of each other if not for the gnarled burn scar across one of the girls’ faces. When Justin G. Knittel, MD, met the twins at a hospital in Lviv, Ukraine, he noticed another stark difference: The girl without the scar was bubbly and bright-eyed while the girl with the scar acted reserved and sad.

“Every time the injured sister looked at her twin, she was met with a real-life image of how she looked prior to the burn,” said Knittel, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a volunteer with a U.S. medical team that provides care for Ukrainian children with burn injuries and other potentially disfiguring conditions. “Life is hard enough as a child without having a visible burn scar that makes you different from other children. It’s devastating to go through childhood like that.”

Helping to reduce trauma for kids inspired Knittel to volunteer with Doctors Collaborating to Help Children, a nonprofit organization that for several years has provided free plastic and reconstructive surgery to children in Ukraine, most recently at health-care facilities in Poland, near the Ukrainian border. Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Eastern Europe, impeding access for many to general medical care, much less surgical treatment. More recently, many of the nation’s hospitals, clinics and other health-related infrastructure have been damaged or destroyed due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and ongoing war, as well as its previous aggressions against Ukraine.