Pictured Above: Registered Nurse Barbara Mercier and Doctor Thomas Mercier discuss their recent work in Ukraine. 

Longtime Mattituck Pediatrician Thomas Mercier and Registered Nurse Barbara Mercier received Suffolk County’s Health Care Hero Award Aug. 29 in a special ceremony at Veteran’s Beach in Mattituck.

Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski presented the couple with the award for their “years of dedicated service to our community and their work to help those in need of medical assistance in Ukraine” at the August meeting of the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association.

Now retired, the Merciers ran an active pediatric practice on Love Lane in Mattituck for decades, serving countless families and their children.

They met at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City in 1977, and soon after marrying moved to Mattituck, where Barbara’s family had summered since 1905. After six months attempting to get their practice off the ground, they were discouraged and considering moving back to the city.

They said a “quick and immature prayer asking God to show us the direction,” said Dr. Mercier at the awards ceremony. Literally 20 minutes later, another local doctor called to tell them he was retiring and he wanted to refer his patients to them. This began their long careers providing care to the community here. In turn, the community supported them when their house on New Suffolk Avenue burned down in 1988.

Always driven by their Christian faith, the Merciers went to Ukraine for the first time in 1995, as the country was emerging from its communist past and its people were searching for new definitions for their lives.

Working with the groups Arise Ukraine and Crisis Response International, they “went to do medical work and preaching, but we got to be where it was less medical work and more preaching,” said Dr. Mercier.

In early March of this year, Crisis Response International put out a call for help going to Poland to help refugees as they were fleeing Ukraine at the start of Russia’s attack on their country.

While they were waiting at JFK International Airport, the couple learned that their group would actually be going to a refugee center inside of Ukraine. They didn’t tell their family, so as not to worry them, but their son, who was following them using a friend-finding app, began texting them as their bus drove three hours into Ukraine, to a refugee center near Lviv, saying “What do you think you’re doing? Make good decisions, mom and dad.”

There were about 180 refugees at the center, which was an old Soviet-style hospital, where they stayed for two weeks, helping as best they could.

“The people there were so grateful to be alive,” said Dr. Mercier. “They had walked away from everything. They had no idea if their homes were destroyed or intact.”

“When you think of this war-torn place filled with devastated people, what can you do to help?” said Barbara Mercier. “They weren’t there for a well visit. Their life is too catastrophic. We decided that we can be here and look in your eyes and show love and compassion, which heals broken hearts, restores souls and touches lives.”

“They were pretty well off medically, but it seemed more that us being there was therapeutic for them,” said Dr. Mercier. “We said ‘We came to tell you that Americans care about you, but more than that, God cares about you. It was at a time when they were saying ‘nobody cares about us. Why is the world letting this happen? They were right. No one was really helping.”

Everywhere they went, people asked them why the world wasn’t covering their airspace, protecting them from Russian bombs.

People in Mattituck who knew about the Merciers’ past involvement in Ukraine had encouraged them to go and do what they could to help, perhaps driven by their own sense of powerlessness.

“We knew that we’d been carrying the heartbeat of this incredible community with us” into Ukraine,” said Barbara Mercier.

Though they didn’t actually see any fighting or destroyed buildings, their interactions with people who’d escaped areas  of conflict stayed with them.

“You come back here, and you’re going to dinner in a restaurant or to a grocery store, and life is just peaceful and safe. You can forget how awful life can be,” said Dr. Mercier. “It’s a challenge to keep that in the forefront. It’s not just ‘we’re fine over here, so everything’s fine in the world.”

Refugees from Ukraine are still seeking asylum in the United States, and Ms. Mercier urged anyone interested in sponsoring a refugee to look into doing so.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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