From grief to gratitude: Bemidji's Peter Nordquist reflects on journey helping Ukrainians in need of limbs
Peter Nordquist has made three trips to Ukraine to provide humanitarian aid since the Russian invasion began in February. He now is working with a doctor in Minneapolis to provide prosthetics to Ukrainians who have lost limbs in the war.
BEMIDJI — A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy who survived a deadly Russian missile blast has a new arm thanks to the fortitude of Peter Nordquist and the generosity of the Bemidji man’s friends, neighbors and folks he doesn’t even know.
The boy, whose name is Artem, is staying in Minneapolis with his mother after receiving his prosthetic arm this fall from The Protez Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit founded by Nordquist and Yakov Gradinar, a Ukrainian-born prosthetist who now practices in Minneapolis.
Artem will stay in the Twin Cities for about six months, and as his body acclimates to the new limb, he will receive a permanent wrist and fingers, Nordquist said.
Artem was playing with his 12-year-old brother this summer at their grandmother’s house in Zhytomyr, a city of 49,000 located southwest of Kyiv. Sirens sounded to warn of a missile attack, but those alarms were so common that the boys did not heed them.
Their father sensed imminent danger and went to get the boys. As they were returning to the house to seek shelter, a missile struck. Artem’s father and brother were both killed, and the 9-year-old had to have his left arm amputated.
He is one of about two dozen Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who have received new limbs from the Protez Foundation.
Nordquist, who has made three trips to Ukraine to provide humanitarian aid since the war began in February, just shakes his head when he tells Artem’s story. He is giving thanks this week to those who have stepped up to fund the prosthetic work.
"The generosity of this community has made a big difference in Artem’s life,” Nordquist said. “Money has gone right to Artem from Bemidji. In fact, most of Artem’s care has come from Bemidji.”
That includes money raised by two churches led by Pastor Mark Kuleta of Clearwater Lutheran in Shevlin and Solway Lutheran.
“Pastor Mark rallied those congregations to come up with money,” Nordquist said. “I can’t believe it, because the churches are small and rural. But they came up with a significant amount of money.”
Kuleta said his parishioners were happy to contribute to such a tangible cause.
“When I heard about what Peter was doing, here was an opportunity to support a local effort that we could have a direct connection with,” Kuleta said. “I would say to our people that for the price of a cup of coffee you could save a life. Every dollar here is worth $4 over there. It’s mind-boggling.
"This is exactly the kind of thing we want to support, that people are helping people who can’t help themselves, in a situation they didn’t ask to be in.”
Because of those donations, along with many others who have supported Nordquist’s efforts, all expenses for Artem’s procedures, travel and accommodations have been paid for. Nordquist will thank those donors when he delivers the sermon at a Thanksgiving Eve service at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 23, at Clearwater Lutheran in Shevlin.
Doing the work
Nordquist, 67, lived in Bemidji until he was 13 when his family moved to the Twin Cities. His parents had a second home on Big Bass Lake, so the Nordquists always spent a lot of time in Bemidji.
Peter and his wife Laurie spent summers in Bemidji with their three children. He owned a food packaging business in the Twin Cities. Now retired, they have made Bemidji their permanent residence.
It was during his last trip to Ukraine that Peter got connected with Yakov Gradinar, the prosthetist.
“I was in a meeting with some Ukrainian government officials who wanted me to continue doing humanitarian work,” Nordquist said. “In that meeting when it became clear that I’m just an individual volunteer, the Minister of Health and Education asked me if I could help them with prosthetics because of the big need that had recently come on.”
About that same time, a Twin Cities television station was doing a story on Nordquist’s work. The TV crew set up a Zoom interview with him and also on the call was Gradinar, whose Minneapolis lab fits prosthetics. Gradinar agreed to meet with Nordquist when he returned to the U.S., and that’s when The Protez Foundation was established.
Nordquist said Gradinar was only able to do the foundation’s work on weekends and evenings until recently when he resigned from the clinic and devoted his full attention to the nonprofit.
“He is able to provide a $45,000 artificial limb for $15,000 because he’s not billing for the work, he’s doing it on his own," Nordquist said. "And he’s recruiting volunteers and raising funds. Some of the parts manufacturers are also empathetic to the Ukrainian plight, so they’re providing parts at a great discount.”
As he prepares for a quiet Thanksgiving in Bemidji, Nordquist reflects on the last chaotic eight months that included three self-funded trips to a war zone, the birth of his first grandchild and a move up north.
Despite the suffering and devastation he witnessed in battle-torn Ukraine, he finds solace in knowing people like young Artem have hope for a brighter future.