I recently travelled to Poland with British media to meet some people who had set up medical facilities at refugee centres for those fleeing the war in Ukraine, and to talk to healthcare workers about what they were seeing and the challenges they face.
After working for the National Health Service (NHS) for almost 20 years and having volunteered as a medic in Africa in the past, I felt I was in good stead to report on the challenges faced by those serving the medical needs of refugees. But I must admit, when faced with the sheer scale of the work that needs to be done, and the people doing it, I felt incredibly humbled.
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At first glance, Warsaw appeared to be like any other big city, bustling with people going about their daily lives. But on closer inspection, signs of support for Ukrainians were everywhere. Ukraine flags hung from lampposts; walls were adorned with pro-Ukraine artwork; most shops had the Ukrainian flag colours in their windows; and many people walked around wearing yellow and blue ribbons.
The taxi driver taking me from the airport to my hotel eagerly shared how he had happily welcomed a Ukrainian refugee family into his home. When I asked what made him do it, he replied: “If the Russians take Ukraine, Poland will be next.” This felt like a dramatic statement, but I soon found out it was a sentiment echoed by many Poles I met.
After unpacking at the hotel, my first meeting was with NHS midwife, Wendy Warrington, who had travelled from the United Kingdom to provide medical aid for those arriving at the Poland-Ukraine border. Wendy arrived days after the conflict started; she has family in Poland and could speak the language, something that would prove incredibly advantageous. She is a mother and grandmother; I asked what her family thought of her working along the border with Ukraine.
“Well, I didn’t give them a choice,” she said. “I told them I was going and that was that.”
Wendy is also a registered nurse. When she arrived, the immediate need was to transport the sickest people out of Ukraine to Poland. Wendy found herself driving an ambulance to and from the border, where Ukrainian health authorities were dropping off patients who were in urgent need of medical attention but were not safe in areas such as Kyiv.
One patient Wendy picked up was a 23-year-old with end-stage cancer. Wendy witnessed her saying goodbye to her family and boyfriend, who had to stay behind and fight. The woman needed safe hospital treatment to help manage the symptoms of her cancer, but the disease is so advanced that Wendy does not know whether she will see her family or boyfriend again. She was transferred to Warsaw and Wendy visits her regularly. Although they do not speak the same language, Wendy tells me they have a shared experience that will keep them bonded forever.
More recently, Wendy has put her midwifery skills to good use and set up an antenatal clinic close to the border. She tells me that many pregnant women are arriving on buses, accompanied by young children; her clinic is the first time they can check whether their unborn babies remain healthy, often after days of travel. She smiles as she recalls the relief on an expectant mother’s face when she hears her baby’s heartbeat again, knowing that all is well.
“You can see them physically relax,” she says. “Their shoulders come down and their faces light up. Just to give them that moment of relief has been worth me coming out.”
Before I leave, I ask Wendy if she is looking forward to going home. It is the first time I see her get emotional. “I am due to go home as I have promised my grandchildren I will take them away for Easter. But I am coming back, there is so much more work to be done here.”
We say our goodbyes and I reflect quietly on what an incredible woman Wendy is.
‘Doctors have to be like candles’
The next morning, I have arranged to meet two doctors via Zoom who have had to leave their surgeries in Kyiv because of the increasing levels of violence in the capital. One doctor, Kuzma, is in Lviv and the other, Anna, has escaped to Talin, Lithuania, with her young children. They tell me they are still holding remote consultations for their patients who remain behind in Kyiv but are increasingly seeing more and more patients with mental health issues that have arisen as a direct result of the war. Anna’s husband has had to stay in Ukraine in case he is needed to fight. What strikes me is Anna’s answer when I ask about her mental health.
“I have to be strong for my children,” she says. “My youngest used to keep asking when daddy was coming home but now is so angry she refuses to come to the phone when daddy calls. I still have to work, I have to make money to support the family.” Her voice breaks as she talks about her children.
Kuzma leaves me with a Ukrainian proverb that lingers with me for the rest of the day. “Doctors have to be like candles, shining their light so others can see whilst burning themselves out.”
My next stop is the Ptak Warsaw Expo Centre on the outskirts of Warsaw, where a huge refugee reception centre has been set up by the private medical organisation, LUX MED. The centre is heavily guarded by the Polish military and only authorised personnel are allowed in. I have to show my passport and invitation to get in. I have heard alarming stories of people traffickers manipulating young women and girls into their vehicles at the border and imagine this is the reason for such stringent security.
I first meet Miroslaw Suszek who works with LUX MED and helped set up the centre. He tells me they take in about 6,000 people each day and that most stay for an average of two-three days before moving on. It has a medical centre that is set up to triage and provide immediate medical care to those arriving from Ukraine. It consists of six clinical rooms run by doctors, nurses and paramedics.
Miroslaw says many of the people arriving are sick. “They have travelled on crowded buses for days. Infections are passed around quickly particularly respiratory viruses and stomach bugs. We have also seen problems associated with hypothermia, including frostbite as many of the refugees have had to endure outdoor freezing temperatures before boarding the buses.”
The clinicians assess any person in need of medical care, and they have an in-house pharmacy that stores common drugs. Miroslaw says some Ukrainians with serious long-term conditions such as diabetes and epilepsy have been without medication for days, so it is vital they have immediate access to these vital drugs.
‘I just want to go home’
While at the Expo Centre, I meet Ludmilla and her grandson, Bohadan. They have travelled from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. Ludmilla cannot speak English, so her grandson translates for her. She is in line to get her heart medication and becomes tearful as she talks about her home.
“We are a close family,” she says as she recalls large family dinners with her children and grandchildren. “My sons are still there.”
“My grandmother makes the best potato pancakes,” Bohadan tells me. “One day, when this is all over, you must visit and taste them.” He goes on to describe how he witnessed the shelling of buildings in his town and heard bombs dropping nearby.
The sight of Ludmilla crying is distressing and I give her a hug. “I just want to go home,” she says. At that moment, I cannot help but think of my grandmother.
The bulk of the refugee centre has been set up as sleeping quarters. The beds resemble sun-loungers and are tightly packed together. Family groups are separated by only a metre at the most and there is minimal privacy.
It is mainly women and children at the centre, but there are also men who are deemed too old or unfit to fight. There are pets, too – dogs sit by their owners, cats are held by children and there is even a rabbit hopping around. In the canteen area, food is served, while staff try their best to engage the children in a makeshift play area.
Attached to the Expo Centre is a makeshift bus station which acts as a reception point for buses transporting people from Ukraine to Poland. I watch as refugees dismount, carrying plastic bags filled with their belongings. They look tired. I am struck by how silent they all are, not even the children are crying – a worrying sign of sheer exhaustion and shock.
When the refugees arrive, their details are taken and they are shown to an area where they can get some rest.
Many of the people who arrive will remain in Poland – the government has set up a scheme that offers them accommodation as well as quick integration into the medical and educational system – but some will choose to leave for other European destinations. At the outgoing bus station, Polish staff who speak Ukrainian assist those refugees who will travel on to another country. There are buses leaving for Estonia, Spain, Austria and Germany that day. After completing the necessary paperwork, the refugees sit in a waiting area for their bus to arrive.
I am there when the bus leaving for Estonia arrives. A message in Ukrainian is read out over the speakers and a line of people forms at the departure desk, which is fronted by Polish soldiers with clipboards. The soldiers shout out the names of those registered to get onto this bus. One by one, women with young children come forward to confirm their identity. Many carry a baby in one arm and hold the hand of an older child in the other. Children grip their toys tightly as they make their way onto the bus.
I wonder whether I am witnessing a pivotal moment in these children’s lives. If the war carries on for months or even years, these children are likely to settle permanently in the countries they are now moving to. They will learn to speak the language, integrate into the culture and grow into adults in countries their parents had no intention of moving to. If that happens, we will go on to see them find partners within those countries and have children of their own – a real mass movement of people that were made to settle away from their homes due to a conflict they were innocent victims of.
I overhear a conversation between a mother and child as they get on the bus and ask Miraslow to translate it for me. “The child is asking when she can return home to her father,” Miraslow says. “It is a common sentiment here, all of these people just want to go home.”
I reflect on what I have seen during my time in Poland as I board my flight home. The efforts Polish authorities are making to ensure safe passage to Ukrainian refugees, the goodwill of the Polish people, the medics and volunteers, is quite remarkable.
War is ugly for the most part, but seeing how people across Europe are welcoming refugees into their countries and homes offers a small sliver of light in an otherwise dark moment in our history.