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EP Volunteer: ‘Don't Forget Ukraine’

Kwasniak, Megan MD

doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000834096.29822.95
    Ukraine war, medical volunteering

    Dusk came quickly, and it started to rain again. The chilly, damp air permeated all my layers of clothing, sending a shiver down my spine. It was our last day at the border, and we had just said goodbye.

    The orange vests we wore throughout the week had been neatly placed on the bench beside us, ready to be picked up by someone else tomorrow. We exited the tent, which was illuminated by the warm glow of a fireplace, and stepped into the cold, damp evening, cameras hanging from our sides. We did not want to miss any photo story on our way out.

    We stepped onto the wet ground and took the same walk we had taken all week, past the volunteer tents set up to welcome and aid refugees, past the food stalls, and the vet clinic. We waved goodbye to the familiar faces we had befriended. We came to the bus stop at the end of the path.

    Looking into Ukraine from Poland where the medical tent was located.

    I glanced back as we were almost out of the camp. My eyes met those of a young woman we had treated earlier. She was barely 18, though she appeared much older. She was bundled up, waiting for the bus to arrive. Where would it take her? The options were limited, but likely to the large refugee center in Przemyśl, Poland, a converted shopping mall now occupied by more than 5000 people. Her future was uncertain. Perhaps she had family in Europe; perhaps she would spend some time at the center with the hundreds who had been forced to flee their homes. I didn't know, and perhaps she didn't either. But one thing was for sure: I had a home to go back to. She did not. Still, she smiled faintly at me.

    Volunteers brought toys, crayons, and chalk to tents where families were resting after crossing into Poland. The tent where this boy and his mother were resting was full of women, children, and dogs.

    It was precisely a situation like hers that had brought me to Medyka. Now, after a week that had passed too quickly, my time volunteering was over. I was going home, but she and thousands of others were stuck in uncertainty, displaced from their homes and far from everything they had ever known. My heart ached as we drove away from the camp.

    The decision to come to the Polish-Ukrainian border was spontaneous. I had planned to spend three weeks in Madrid taking dance classes at a studio I had been following on social media for several months. But I became restless and anxious watching the situation unfold in Ukraine, so I decided to get involved. My friend Sonia, a Ukrainian whose family emigrated to the United States many years ago, decided to join me. We arranged to stay with my family who lives close to the border, driving an hour each way every day to get to Medyka.

    About 2000 refugees passed through Medyka the week that Dr. Kwasniak was volunteering there. Refugees were able to rest for a few hours, have a hot meal, and decompress before heading to a bus that would take them to the refugee center, like these women in Przemyśl, Poland, or to other refugee centers or a train station for travel to other parts of Poland and Europe.

    My role as a volunteer involved staffing the medical tent, which was located directly across the border. Standing outside, we watched small groups of people walk down the long path after their passports had been checked. All day we heard suitcase wheels rolling against the concrete. Our tent was the first stop on the Polish side. Many refugees had stopped requesting evaluation or specific medications.

    Most cases were not severe enough to require hospitalization, but we could call an ambulance if we needed one. Most people reported psychological trauma. Sonia spoke fluent Russian and was able to communicate with most refugees on a deeper level than I could. She worked as a translator and took the time to talk to everyone who reached out to her. I tagged along, taking photographs and listening to people's stories when they were willing to share them.

    Refugees continued crossing into Poland as Sonia and I prepared to leave. The war remains deeply etched in my mind. Perhaps I'll help again somehow, but for now, I'm sharing the images of the people who kindly agreed to be photographed and wanted the world to know their story. I ask all of you reading this, please don't forget Ukraine. She needs all the support we can give her right now.

    Photo page 1: A woman showing her bombed Kyiv apartment. She hid in a basement with little food and water for two days before escaping.

    Dr. Kwasniakis an emergency physician in south Florida, world traveler, and photographer. Read her blog, and follow her on Instagram@megankwasniak.

    Copyright © 2022 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.
    • sylviedesouza7:26:14 AMGreat piece, Megan. As soon as I heard of the events in Ukraine, I knew that you would find your way there. This is just who you are. Thank you for sharing the experience with us through your photographs and words.