James Whitney Hill, 68, decided to stay in Ukraine despite the Russian invasion with his partner, who is suffering from progressive multiple sclerosis. He is believed to be one of the first Americans to have died in the conflict.
Sources say he was killed by Russian artillery fire while going out in search of food for hungry patients at a local hospital where his partner is being treated.
A Courageous Act
Cheryl Gordon said she told her brother James to “get the hell out of there” when the Russians were getting ready to invade Ukraine.
But Hill decided to stay by his partner’s side. They made the four-hour trip to Chernihiv Regional Hospital in the northern city of Chernihiv, so his partner, Iryna Teslenko, could get treatment for her condition. Teslenko came down with pneumonia along the way, forcing her to stay at the hospital longer than the couple had originally planned.
“She was the only reason he was still there,” Gordon said. “Jim was in Ukraine this time because he had gotten medicine from the United States and had found a doctor in Chernihiv that would treat her.”
Hill posted about his wife’s condition on Facebook right up until his death.
“We could try a break out tomorrow but Ira’s mom doesn’t want to. Each day people are killed trying to escape. But bombs falling here at night. Risk either way,” he wrote on social media on Monday.
“Intense bombing! still alive. Limited food. Room very cold. ira in intensive care,” he posted the next day.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko shared the news on Thursday by posting a photo of Hill’s passport on his verified Telegram account.
The U.S. State Department drafted an official letter regarding Hill’s death and sent it to his brother, who then forwarded it to Gordon.
“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 Anthony Blinken confirmed that an American has been killed in the conflict in Ukraine.
“We offer our sincerest condolences to the family on their loss,” a State Department spokesperson said.
According to Gordon, Hill was a lecturer of English and social psychology who loved his life in Ukraine. He frequently traveled to the eastern European nation to be with his partner and visit his longtime friend Karin Moseley, who first met Hill in high school.
The last time Moseley saw Hill was last October when she stayed at his Airbnb in Montana.
“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 taught at universities around Europe to be closer to Teslenko.
A school in the Czech Republic posted a tribute to Hill online.
“This is with a great regret that we heard about the tragic death of professor Jimmy Hill,” the Prague Summer Schools said in the post. “Jimmy was a passionate teacher in our Summer School on Crime, Law and Psychology program since 2014 and was loved by the students from all over the world. We will miss Jimmy very much.”
Mosley added that Hill liked to be in touch with his surroundings and in sync with the outdoors and that being cooped up in the hospital during the war with Teslenko ill was clearly having an effect on him.
“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.”
Hill’s other sister Katya remembers talking to him over a week before he died.
“We talked for about an hour as I was hearing the bombs in the background,” she said. “And then he said he could see the lighting up in the sky from the bombing in civilian areas.”
But she didn’t hear fear in his voice.
“My last call with him, he was very optimistic and then things deteriorated,” she said.
The family doesn’t know where Hill’s remains are located, but Katya said the police have found his body.
“My brother was just a special person and everybody that’s on Facebook can see that,” Katya said. “The hardest thing that we’re going to have to go through is not having that kind of closure. We just want to know where he is.”