Global health

What I learned from my medical mission trip to help Ukrainian refugees in April

I worked with a team providing medical aid at two checkpoints on the Polish-Ukrainian border.

On April 1, 2022, as a third-year osteopathic medical student at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, our team from Global Hands arrived in Poland with the sole aim of providing care to Ukrainian refugees on a two-week medical mission trip. Since my return, I have had an opportunity to reflect on my experience and on the many lessons I learned while interacting with refugees and medical professionals from across the globe.

I had always envisioned medical missions as part of my future career, but the thought of going to Ukraine on a medical mission as a third-year student never occurred to me. However, when Janell Wright, OMS IV, who also attends TouroCOM, and I were approached by Global Hands, headed by Vikram Gupta, MD, to join a mission trip to Ukraine, we jumped at the opportunity.

We quickly learned that providing health care in Ukraine’s conflict zone is a rapidly evolving situation in which the needs of refugees are constantly changing and shaped by the events of the developing war.

Janell Wright, OMS IV, and Tina Kana, OMS IV

Our team was initially supposed to be stationed in Warsaw at the Global Expo refugee center. However, after learning of the intense influx of refugees trying to cross the Polish border, we decided to shift our attention to the Ukrainian side of the border. We joined up with the Folkowisko Association, a Polish folk festival organization that was providing medical aid at the Korczowa-Krakovets and Budomezh-Hrushiv checkpoints in Ukraine.

Patients line up for hours to receive care

In both locations, refugees were lining up for hours in cold temperatures, and congested border lineups had led to several deaths earlier in the month, with wait times reaching over 30 hours. For many refugees, the clinic, staffed by volunteers, is the last point for health care they could receive before crossing into Poland on foot.

We rotated in 12-hour shifts with some of us working full 24-hour shifts. On our first full day, our team saw a steady stream of people, including sick children and exhausted adults looking for medical care. Refugees were dropped off in large buses from all over Ukraine, especially eastern regions such as Mariupol and Kharkiv.

Many of the patients came to our clinic with complaints of high blood pressure, dizziness, nausea and headaches. Yet others were far sicker. Several patients came in with hypertensive emergencies, with blood pressure readings as high as 260/170. They travelled long distances to reach the border with only one suitcase in hand, and often, essential medications were left behind. They left the clinic with some blood pressure medication in hand and advice to see a physician as soon as they reached Poland.

Tina Kana, OMS IV, prepares to treat patients.

Heartbreaking family separations

Another common theme among the refugees was the anxiety that arose from family separation. The most difficult scenes to witness were the family separations. The men would remain in Ukraine while the women and children moved onto Poland. For me, it was so hard to watch them say goodbye, and it reminded me of my own two children, who were anxiously waiting for me to return home. While many of the refugees’ ailments could be alleviated by medications, a majority needed a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold.

On my third shift, I had the pleasure of working with an emergency medicine physician from Switzerland and a nurse from Ireland. During a slower period in our shift, we spent time focusing on unpacking medications and organizing them into categories while making sure the most-needed medications, such as over-the-counter pain relievers and antihypertensives, were in easily accessible locations.

We also created portable emergency kits stocked with epinephrine, steroids and benzodiazepines to make the clinic more mobile, which proved to be extremely helpful just a few hours later.

Later that afternoon, on a bus from an eastern part of the country, a young woman in her early 40s had a seizure. As she stepped off the bus, she collapsed in the parking lot. Too unwell to walk, we brought her into the clinic on a stretcher and started her on intravenous fluids. After stabilizing her, we had to make the tough decision of whether to try and transport her across the Polish border or keep her in Ukraine and take her to the nearest hospital.

Simple patient transfers were not down the corridor, but hours away. Ultimately, we jointly decided the most conservative option would be to evacuate her by ambulance to the nearest hospital in Ukraine.

Working with scarce resources

In such a care environment, resources are limited and scarce and many times you must make do with what you have available. The clinic was not designed to treat trauma wounds, such as serious bleeding or broken bones. Those patients were sent to nearby hospitals in Ukraine, or if the situation allowed, to Poland. Instead, we were there to diagnose problems that, if untreated, could become more serious, such as hypertension, diabetes, coughs, headaches and stomach problems.

Most could be handled with some medication and reassurance. We were preventing them from getting sicker, especially when they still had many days ahead in their journey. Once the refugees reach the Polish side, they are quickly ushered into buses and moved into temporary centers in nearby cities, which delays their access to medical care for several more days.

Overall, volunteering on my first medical mission was a truly humbling experience. It was a unique chance to work alongside medical professionals from across the world and gain hands-on experience in the field. Seasoned physicians and nurses took time out during slower periods to teach us valuable skills, such as splinting and placing intravenous lines. This mission trip will always hold a special place in my heart, and it was one of the most gratifying and rewarding experiences of my life.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

From Philly to Florida: How this DO’s path led to him serving underserved patients

Thriving in third year clerkships: Learning medicine at the bedside

15 comments

  1. A

    One the most humble individuals to walk this earth. Everything you have done thus far in your life has paid off. Continue the great work. God speed

  2. S

    Thank you for sharing your experience, and for highlighting some of the challenges that many individuals have faced in this incredibly difficult situation. Great work!

  3. Dena A.

    Amazing work! Truly a selfless endeavor which speaks to your dedication to health care. Thank you for your efforts and for sharing this experience!

  4. Tracey

    Tina is one of the most compassionate people I have ever met. Thank you for your service and bearing witness. You are an inspiration to us all. Bless you and the people of Ukraine as they seek safety across the border.

  5. Neelam Patel

    What an amazing opportunity and experience. Thank you for sharing with us. You’re truly an inspiration for others! Keep doing the good work, beyond proud of you!

  6. Yoness

    Wow! What a wonderful experience for you to share! Very delighted to see brave people like make such a difference in this world. Will be encouraging others to follow your footsteps

  7. S.Blount

    This was a honor to read. The work & dedication you & your medical team provided to ensure many refugees & their families were able to receive some form of medical care during a very challenging time. I can only imagine how humbling yet rewarding experience this was for you.

  8. Leonid Skorin, Jr., D.O.

    Thank you for being so generous with your time and your skills. I am sure that all the Ukrainian people you interacted with truly appreciated your assistance.
    Also, I would like to thank “The DO” for reminding your readers that the war for Ukraine’s freedom is still ongoing.

  9. Nimisha Patel

    Thank you for your service and unconditional dedication to healthcare. You are simply amazing and selfless when it comes to helping others. God bless you and your compassion for others.

  10. Nimisha Patel

    Thank you for your time and dedication to healthcare and what a beautiful journey. You are simply amazing and selfless when it comes to helping others. God bless you and your compassion for others.

  11. Marsha Lange MD

    Good job! I’ve been on medical mission trips, but not to war zones. This trip is an experience that you’ll reflect back on for decades. And I bet it will be the first of many medical mission trips. May you continue to bless the world with your work!

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