Ukraine Crisis Relief - Medcase Humanitarian Efforts in Poland
Every organization with connections to the crisis in Ukraine has given thought or contribution to help support the growing humanitarian crisis that keeps unfolding. Last week, Etan Pasternak, our Head of Telehealth and leading expert on mobilizing operational remote assistance, flew to the refugee camps in Poland to offer his hand and our assistance at the ongoing efforts to support the 2.5-million-plus refugees that have fled the borders of Ukraine. Here we have collated all the personal accounts of what he has witnessed.
Day 1, Lwowska
I arrived at the refugee holding center in Lwowska, Poland, about a 25-minute drive from where I’m staying. For the first hour, I wandered around outside doing some documenting and a lot of observing. I was surprised at the lack of crowds and the relative calm in the air.
There were a lot of news teams on the ground, everyone filming and documenting, interviewing refugees and aid workers. The outside of the refugee center almost looked abandoned, there were piles of clothing and supplies for refugees to take, and some refugees rummaging through and taking what they needed. There were several families huddled around little fire pits to stay warm and aid workers and drivers gathering refugees to take them to the next destination. There were street vendors, providing free hot food and lines of buses that were empty and awaiting passengers for transport. Also, many tents that seemed to be unoccupied. When I got closer to the giant blue building which is a repurposed warehouse/shopping center that is now housing refugees, they were lines of refugees awaiting entry into the building.
Once inside, there were masses of people crowding the hallways; I noticed there were several markings on the walls, numbered 1 through 13, all the way through the building. The first was a line for driver registration (for those who are willing to take refugees) the second was the longest of the lines - it was where the refugees had to register themselves when arriving. Once they registered, they are given bracelets which grants them access to the rest of the holding facility. The remaining numbers are for specific rooms for holding the refugees.
When I found the Red Cross clinic, I asked for my contacts on the team - they were expecting me and seemed happy to see me. I was immediately taken on a tour of the rest of the facility where I was shown the kitchen, which provided 24/7 free hot meals and drinks to whoever wanted. There was also a giant room filled with hundreds of refugees, several smaller rooms filled with wall-to-wall cots, people with their pets and personal belongings, and a large warehouse full of supplies to which we were not granted access. They mentioned that this was the busiest the place had been since they arrived and it was truly filled with people in the hallways, sleeping on cots and on the floors everywhere you looked. I got to spend a lot of time talking with the team and listening to their stories.
During the tour of the facility, we talked about many of the barriers they’re facing. I was surprised by how organized this chaotic place was, there were lots of bright-colored vests representing the aid workers, many with the languages they speak written in marker on their vests. Many also had their titles and skills written as well (nurse, doctor, etc..). Of course, there were also Polish police and military patrolling, but their presence was not really felt. Everyone was courteous and helped one another. I think for the first hour or so, I was so overwhelmed by all that was going on that I didn’t have a chance to truly process what I was witnessing. I only realized this when I took another walk around the building and saw a small little area they blocked off, where many kids were gathering to play, read books, and do some activities. At that moment, it became obvious that this was an attempt to keep them occupied and distracted while their parents were dealing with some very, very serious issues. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a small boy, the same age as my son, crying in his mother's arms; I felt a wave of emotion at that exact moment all hitting me at once. It was a very real reminder that this could happen to any of us and we have to do all that we can to help.
After several hours of being at the facility, helping with little tasks here and there, and working with one of the teams, a group of us left to go and get lunch, as well as hot coffee for the rest of the team. It’s about a 15-minute drive into the heart of Przemsyl. I offered to drive. Once we arrived in the center of the city it was bustling; there were lots of US military personnel, reporters, humanitarian aid workers, in addition to the refugees. We parked about 100 m from the train station unknowingly. We then decided to go into the train station and see what was going on there. Similar to the holding center, the station was packed with people all over, in one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. There were people holding signs, offering rides to specific areas, as well as people with megaphones, announcing which trains people should take. There were nuns offering medical assistance and security by the Polish military. We did not stay there long.
After returning back to the holding center with lunch, we ate it together and continued our discussions about their areas of need. Throughout lunch the doctor was called in and out, to help with patients in need - she was the only doctor in the building to my knowledge. Interestingly the doctor is of Ukrainian descent. A few days ago her family, including her parents and sister, crossed the Ukrainian border into Poland, and she was able to meet them in Kraków (amazing side story).
By the time I left at around 6pm local time, the place had nearly emptied out. Many had been able to find rides or transportation to their next destination. They informed me this is typical and the evenings are quieter but when more people ask for medical care. The night shift of Red Cross workers were entering as I was leaving.
I feel honored and humbled to have been able to assist these amazing people who are volunteering their time to help others.
Day 2, Near the Ukrainian Border, Poland
I didn’t think it was possible to top the day I had yesterday, but I somehow managed to do it today. I started the day in downtown Przemysl. I wanted to return to take some photographs and videos and spend a little bit more time in the train station and seeing the town. Since I wasn’t meeting the Red cross team until late morning, I took the opportunity. The city is beautiful; full of buildings with lots of intricate details and the streets, many paved with stones, were quaint and scenic. I walked by the train station and observed that there was more commotion today than yesterday; it was obvious that there must’ve been a big convoy of refugees that was awaiting travel and to be disbursed into the rest of Europe. There was also a greater military and police presence. Outside, there were people holding signs offering free rides and places to stay.
Since the building was overflowing with people, I decided to not enter but rather observe from the outside. After a while, I continued to walk around, at which point I headed back to the refugee center to meet the team. The team today consisted of three doctors, one nurse, and a coordinator. The center was by far more chaotic on the outside than yesterday. There were hundreds of refugees standing, awaiting entry into the building and hundreds more awaiting buses to be transported out.
I was able to enter the building with little issue today and quickly found the team. Yesterday, the team’s social worker and other volunteers had started to create an area for the kids (a playroom). They were scrambling to find a place that was suitable for children, containing and safe. When I left yesterday afternoon, the room was still just an idea. When I arrived today, I was shocked to see the progress that had been made. The area was not only complete with a television playing cartoons, games, and toys but was already filled with children and aid workers supervising them. It was a shining light amid the reality that surrounds.
The interior of the center was as busy as it was outside, significantly more busy than yesterday. We did not stay in the center long today, as the team had made arrangements to get a tour of the border crossing. We had been provided a shared location via Google maps, which was about an hour away from our location, closer to the Ukrainian border. This was from a person who had reached out and expressed a dire need for medical personnel to help refugees at the border.
No one really knew what to expect, where we were going, or who we were meeting. There was a lot of speculation on the drive, a lot of good banter, and morale-boosting. Unfortunately shortly after we began our commute, we were rear-ended at a traffic light. No one was hurt although this did delay us for about an hour. The Polish police were called to the scene, took our passports, and returned them 35 minutes later to let us be on our way. The vehicle was damaged from the rear but still drivable.
Once we were released we drove to the location that we were provided. The roads there were windy and narrow and not well maintained. The countryside however, was beautiful and scenic; farmland as far as the eye can see. Along the commute, I saw lines of Polish military vehicles, convoy vehicles filled with supplies, and buses filled with supplies and people.
We finally arrived at the location; it was a giant warehouse pretty much in the middle of nowhere. As we pulled in, we could see groups of men and women, all moving rapidly to load and unload trucks, cars, vans, trailers, etc. It was clear that this was a distribution center for donations. Once inside we were greeted warmly and informed that our contact, the manager, was still on the Ukrainian side of the border and will be arriving shortly. We were given a rundown of the facility - it belongs to a company that puts together outdoor festivals. At the start of the war, they shifted their focus from events and used their knowledge of building outdoor cities for festivals, into landing facilities for refugees on the Ukrainian side of the border.
While we waited they invited us in and offered us soup and bread, and coffee and tea. It could’ve been because we were hungry but we unanimously agreed it was the best tasting soup we’ve ever had. We shared a table with other volunteers who were taking a short break from their amazing work. We were located In the upstairs of the building; around the room were cots, sleeping bags, pillows, and personal belongings of the volunteers who were staying there, day and night, to be able to help the refugees.
After a little while, our group joined in to help. There were several tables with Polish women, all standing around putting together food (sandwiches) and other items for the refugees in assembly lines. Each of us put on gloves, took up a station, and joined in. After a little while, our contact arrived and the entire place paused for a moment as she walked in, almost as a symbol of respect; she was clearly a very well-loved person in the building. She is bubbly, kind, and friendly. She brings a larger-than-life aura that’s palpable. An energy that is infectious and empowering. An absolute hero. She came over and gave several of the group big hugs; she was clearly very happy to see us. She had just returned from the other side of the border in Ukraine with just the most devastating reports of what was happening there. She and her team have been manning several outposts along a corridor used for refugees on the Ukrainian side of the border. The queues at the border crossing are several kilometers long. She took us into a private room which was essentially a makeshift office and command center. We sat around a table and she started to explain what was happening.
She explained that several people had died in their tent that day from hypothermia and other complications. There were a few paramedics including herself who were there to provide care, although it was not enough. She described children walking for miles with no gloves, people collapsing, and other terrible injuries. People are so scared to leave the queue so they don’t lose their place in line, that they were collapsing and dying right there. Her team is working 24/7 and making several trips back-and-forth every day, bringing supplies, including food blankets, hand and feet warmers, and anything that would help. The border can take several hours for them to cross, which is why they are working 8-hour shifts, 24/7. They are also rescuing lost pets, feeding them, and trying to reunite with their owners. They are in need of blankets, hand/feet warmers, and medical supplies. Another NGO was able to arrange 2 ambulances and medical supplies for them. In addition to working together to build a field hospital and a more structured and comprehensive medical assessment and delivery team.
Because it was getting dark it was advised that we not cross the border today, Instead, the plan is to return tomorrow morning for our team to assess and decide how they can help. I am excited to join the team in crossing into Ukraine tomorrow.
I felt very lucky and grateful for the guidance that the team provided me before I left. Their preparation made me a valuable asset and member of their team (one is none). Feeling safe/comfortable throughout my journey. More to come tomorrow.
Day Three, Near the Ukrainian Border, Poland
I traveled to pick up two doctors who spent the night at the Lwowska refugee center. They took turns taking shifts all night. I offered to help the night before by picking them up early so that they could refresh themselves before another long day. Since my accommodation was closer to the center, I cooked them breakfast and we made preparations to cross the Polish border into Ukraine. We then traveled back to the border warehouse, about an hour and a half away.
During the drive, they shared stories of the events from the night before, all heartbreaking. In particular, one story stood out; a woman who was mid-chemotherapy treatment and post-surgery just a few days ago. She needed highly specialized follow-up and medication, which was just not available; a microcosm of the issues happening all around. However, this presented an opportunity for Medcase to help, with our expansive network of clinicians around the globe, and the right implementation of technology, we can facilitate remotely guiding the brave physicians on the ground with peer support.
When we arrived at the humanitarian aid warehouse near Lubaczow, the facility was bustling with people and trucks in orchestrated chaos. The organizer was also the conductor. The rest of the team was already there waiting for us, the volunteers were preparing transport vehicles filled with supplies to escort us over to the Ukrainian Border and re-supply their humanitarian efforts for the refugees waiting in long queues across the border. Due to the recent cease-fire announcement, they were anticipating a huge wave of people crossing into Poland.
The newest reports from their volunteers on the Ukrainian side of the border indicated that due to the freezing temperatures the night before, the situation was dire; everyone was scrambling to get as many supplies loaded to take over the border as quickly as possible.
During our wait, we assisted in loading and unloading trucks and transport vans. We were fortunate to also connect with the team from an Israeli organization (several physicians) at the facility, where coordination efforts began between the two groups of physicians. Finally, after several hours at the facility, the convoy was ready to leave. However, due to the long delay and the dangerous nature of the trip over the border, I chose not to join the team (anti-climactic.. I know). I did get reports from the team later that night that the doctors were able to successfully make their assessment and have plans in place to assist, by building a coordinated network of field hospitals along the Ukrainian side of the border (a masterful success). I’m honored to have been able to support this amazing team of clinicians to achieve their goals.
After reflecting on the trip, I’m conflicted about how I feel leaving here tomorrow. There is so much more to be done, these people need all the help we can give them. How can I not stay and help? Also, after all I’ve witnessed, I can’t wait to hug my loved ones. I’m so grateful to the Medcase leadership for trusting me with this assignment. I believe we have many opportunities to contribute positively to this humanitarian crisis, which I will outline in my official report. Taking care of people is woven into the fabric of Medcase’s values, and we stand ready to continue to provide our support.
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