American doctor helps Ukrainian refugees in Poland

Nancy Wespetal, MD, family doctor and international director of Hope in Action, a humanitarian aid organization in Ukraine, left Kyiv less than a week before the Russian attack began and traveled to Poland a week later to help care for Ukrainian refugees.

Shortly before Waspetal left Ukraine, Hope in Action, which consists of 300 members providing medical and pastoral care in rural parts of the country, sponsored an American group that helped train medical workers to respond to mass casualties.

In simulated drills, medics moved “patients” from one room said to be “under fire” to another described as a “safe room.” There they practiced triaging and stabilizing patients with sham injuries—from gunshot wounds to dehiscent chest wounds to partial amputations.

While the training sessions aimed to prepare for an imminent conflict, people remained calm, Wespetal recalled. “No one [there] believed this could happen,” she said.

Today, the same medics are still in Ukraine, treating them on the front lines. Most Hope in Action doctors continue to work in hospitals in western Ukraine, but the doctors in Kyiv, which has been heavily bombed by Russian forces, are harder to track down as some likely work in military hospitals. The organization is also working to get medical supplies and food into Ukraine while trying to get people out.

“It just feels like we’ve all just been blown to the wind,” she said.

In Poland, Wespetal helps take care of refugees in a “transition center” in Przemyśl, across the border from Lemberg. The center, run by the Polish Red Cross and housed in a large school gymnasium about a mile from the city’s train station, treats hundreds of refugees every day. Wespetal helps by providing medical care to arriving refugees and acting as a medical interpreter.

When she first arrived, she was struck by the sheer number of people on the site, “just a mass of people,” she explained.

Wespetal moved to Ukraine in 2001 after completing her residency in the United States, where she grew up. While she’s been helping refugees in eastern Ukraine, Russia and other conflict-affected areas, it’s particularly heartbreaking to see families flee a country they’ve called home for decades, she said.

She said she has never been “under fire” or feared for her physical safety in the past, but the work has always been emotionally draining. “I know there have been refugee crises for years, it’s just never been my area,” she added.

A dining area was set up in the transition center behind the gymnasium. Registration is in front. People sit in bleachers to one side, and there are endless piles of clothes, toys and diapers, along with hundreds of cots to sleep in for those who can stand the noise. Announcements blare overhead, calling buses ready to depart for various cities across Europe – places like Estonia, Germany and Italy.

“The whole European Union is open to them,” said Wespetal. Long-distance trains are free for refugees, Poland offers free medical care and opportunities to stay and work.

Wespetal works together with medical students, paramedics and another doctor in a tent at the back of the center – welcoming refugees, treating their complaints and talking to them about their problems. There are between 50 and 100 volunteers in total. While she works from 9am to 9pm, the paramedics are available 24 hours a day, rotating in 4-hour shifts during the day and 2-hour shifts at night.

Newcomers stay at the transition center for hours to days, she explained. Complaints include high blood pressure and high blood sugar, headaches, insomnia, and swollen feet. Wespetal said it takes time to talk to patients, even if they don’t have serious health problems. She sometimes offers to pray with them because she believes that body, soul, and spirit “need to be treated for the person to become whole.”

Almost every day, the medical team sends at least one person to the hospital for reasons ranging from appendicitis to a heart attack.

Wespetal recalled a patient, an elderly man suspected of having a myocardial infarction, telling her that when they were offered a bus seat, he and his wife were waiting in a line of cars near the border. They decided to part ways, with the man being told there were only 20 kilometers to the border. After 80 kilometers of walking he reached the border and could not find his wife.

“She is missing. Nobody has been able to find her so far,” said Wespetal.

When asked what clinicians and medical workers in the US can do to help, Wespetal said the training for medical professionals is a “wonderful thing.” Many groups are also working to bring medical equipment to Ukraine, she added.

She explained that while it is currently a challenge for foreign doctors to come to Ukraine to provide their support, the country’s Ministry of Health has created one use with the aim of supporting qualified foreign workers in volunteer work. It’s complicated, but “it’s not impossible,” she said. “It’s very difficult to see what’s going on and not want to help.”

While the medical needs are there, the humanitarian needs are even more dire, Wespetal noted. “They move a country of more than 30 million people … by ones and twos and tens and twenties. So there is a great humanitarian need.”

  • Shannon Firth has been MedPage Today’s Washington correspondent on health policy since 2014. She is also a member of the site’s Enterprise & Investigative Reporting team. follow

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