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American killed in Ukraine was trying to feed his sick partner and others in hospital, sister says

Rescuers carry the body of a person who was killed by shelling in Chernihiv, Ukraine. This picture was released by Ukraine's State Emergency Service on March 17. (Press Service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Reuters)
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Friends and relatives of an American who died in Ukraine are mourning his loss and awaiting information about his partner.

James Whitney Hill, 68, was killed Thursday while trying to obtain food for himself, his partner and other very ill patients at Chernihiv Regional Hospital in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, his sister Cheryl Gordon told The Washington Post in an interview.

Gordon said she told her brother to “get the hell out of there” when invasion seemed inevitable, but he said he couldn’t.

Instead, Hill and his partner, Iryna Teslenko, made at least a four-hour trek to reach the hospital so she could receive treatment for her progressive multiple sclerosis. Somewhere along the way, Teslenko came down with pneumonia, according to Gordon, extending their stay in the hospital as the country they both loved burned outside.

“She was the only reason he was still there,” Gordon said.

The video was shared by the State Emergency Service of Ukraine on March 17 and verified by The Washington Post. (Video: The Washington Post)

Hill shared his experiences stuck in a hospital since the Russian invasion through regular posts on Facebook. “We could try a break out tomorrow but Ira’s mom doesnt want to. Each day people are killed trying to escape. But bombs falling here at night. Risk either way,” he wrote in a post on Monday. “Intense bombing! still alive. Limited food. Room very cold. ira in intensive care,” he posted the next day.

The news of Hill’s death spread across social media when Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko posted a photo of the American’s passport on his verified Telegram account, sending a wave of shock among those who knew him and virtual RIP posts on his Facebook account.

The State Department sent a form letter to one of Hill’s brothers, who then forwarded it to 63-year-old Gordon, she said.

“I don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “It says ‘your relative that passed away overseas.’ It says ‘overseas’! It doesn’t even say Ukraine.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed in remarks with reporters at the State Department in Washington that “an American citizen was killed,” but he did not have further details.

“We offer our sincerest condolences to the family on their loss,” a State Department spokesperson said.

Hill was a lecturer of English and social psychology and an Airbnb host who liked to split his time with family members he loved in the United States and the love of his life in Ukraine, according to Gordon. Hill probably inherited their father’s wanderlust and teaching background, Gordon said.

He was the first U.S. teacher Ekaterina Tchaikovskaya had met when she was a student of his 10 years ago. She said she remembers him being part of a group of expats who would organize language or social science lessons for Ukrainians that she found to be very engaging.

Tchaikovskaya and Hill kept in touch via Facebook, and she followed his account to make sure he was doing well as Russian forces encroached on Ukraine.

“He was very kind. He liked what he did. He was very open-minded,” she said. “He was a huge fan of Ukraine, our culture and traditions.”

He grew up in Mahtomedi, Minn., with four other siblings, where he would spend his time fishing, playing pranks on his family and enjoying the “pajama rides” his dad orchestrated, in which the family would pile in the car and head to an unknown destination just for the fun, Gordon said.

Hill, better known as “Jimmy” to Gordon, was a warmhearted older brother with a sense of humor that still tickles Gordon with joy.

Whenever he was stateside, he would spend time with Gordon and her husband at their Albuquerque home where they would just spend time together when he wasn’t fixing up one of his Airbnb properties near Yellowstone.

In an earlier part of his life, he had lived in Albuquerque to see his two sons born before calling other places, such as St. Paul, Minn., Moses Lake, Wash., and Idaho Falls home.

Before he became a teacher, a mentor and a father, he was a shy, quiet kid whom Karin Moseley met 40 years ago. Communication wasn’t present for many years after they both completed high school. There was no Facebook messenger or cellphones to keep tabs on one another, but Moseley always felt that the two would remain tied despite the silence between them — she was right.

She still has the first letter he sent her on “strange paper” that had arrived from India and into her mailbox. The two would continue to communicate via snail mail as Hill made his way across Europe, teaching and making new friends as he kept scribbled notes for an old one.

The last time they spent time with one another was in October when he invited her to spend time at his Airbnb homes in Idaho and Montana, devoting an entire two weeks to catching up, hiking and checking off the list of activities Moseley wanted to do.

“We talked about the old days. We talked about family. We talked about things that affected us as kids that we still think about,” she said.

Hill loved to be out in his surroundings, and Moseley could see the toll that being cooped up in a hospital in Ukraine was having on him as he watched Teslenko remain weak from her bout with pneumonia and multiple sclerosis.

“Jimmy was looking for a miracle for her. He was very hell bent on getting someone somewhere to stop progression of MS,” Moseley said. “If there’s any blessing. He will not see Iryna die. As his friend, I wasn’t sure he would be able to handle it.”

John Hudson contributed to this report.

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