In May 2022, Family Medicine associate professor Kyle Bradford Jones, MD traveled to Warsaw, Poland to provide much-needed medical assistance to refugees of the Ukraine/Russia war. The following is an interview with Dr. Jones about his time and experiences while assisting the ongoing humanitarian efforts there.
Q: Tell me a little about your trip. Your plan was to go to Poland first, and work with the refugee groups there in an apartment complex that had been repurposed for the refugee population, and then work directly in Ukraine second, is that right?
A: Well, I was told that it was an apartment building, but it was more like an expo center they had repurposed. And, the Ukraine portion of the trip was postponed, and so I wasn't able to go into Ukraine. So spent two weeks in Poland.
At the refugee center, there were about 2,000 people while I was there. The building could hold as many as 6,000, but there was a decrease in the influx of refugees and they’ve done such a good job of getting people visas to other countries that thankfully they didn't need to go up to capacity.
As part of the center there’s a clinic, and I was just in clinic all day, every day. There were some army medics from Canada that were stationed there and then our group with a handful of providers as well as some Polish volunteer physicians, so we had it pretty well covered, staffing-wise.
Q: What sorts of cases you see while you were at the clinic?
A: Pretty much everyone had an upper respiratory infection, as you could guess in those close quarters, and we couldn’t test for COVID. There was a concern, if we did test for COVID, they would shut down the center as there would be plenty of positive cases. It was a bit of a catch-22. So it was a lot of treating symptoms, but also teaching people the importance of wearing a mask and washing your hands.
We did have a chicken pox outbreak. You don’t think of that happening very often—it may have been the first time I’ve seen a patient with chicken pox. I may have seen one in residency, I can’t quite remember. They don't have a great infrastructure in Ukraine to get vaccinated for anything, and so almost none of them had been vaccinated against it. So there was one family who had three little boys who had chicken pox, and the mom was pregnant, and so we had to figure things out as best we could to keep her and the fetus safe. It was challenging.
There were also a lot of chronic issues where people didn’t have their medicine, a lot of issues with insulin and antihypertensives. We had some medicines there and were able to get some extra, and we thankfully did have some funds where we could try to get some from the pharmacy for a month or two for the patients, but Poland is struggling with their supply of medications too, so sometimes you had to get a little creative. Thankfully, with the money that I fundraised, we were able to take in about $6000 worth of medications and wound care supplies—all of which were greatly appreciated and in high demand. Mostly antibiotics and things like that, but the medications are useful in so many situations and we were able to bring those to the people there.
Q: What memorable experiences did you have while working in Poland?
A: The first refugee I met there, on Monday morning, was a woman who had arrived the day before with her daughter and her grandson, who was three or four years old. Her husband had been killed a week before when their apartment building was bombed and they immediately left. It took them a week or so to get to the refugee center.
And of course, she’s telling me this and she's crying and you know, still struggling to process all of this going on. She has no idea what’s going to happen next, or if they can get a visa somewhere else, if there’s a safe place they can feel comfortable. And after she tells me all about it and I'm just sitting there listening, she was so grateful—first, that I was there just to listen, she really didn’t want anything else for me—but second, that there was a refugee center they could go to and that there were people who cared.
There were actually a few people I met who didn’t think that anyone else in the world knew what Ukraine was or where it was. They would ask me, “Why are you here?” and I would answer, “Well, we’re here to do what we can, and we’re here for you,” and for some of them, that just blew them away. They had no idea.
I met a lot of people, like that woman, who had come from some pretty traumatic things, but also a lot of people who got out as soon as they could and have no idea what's become of their home or anything. But they were able to get out safely and start working towards the next step of their lives.
Q: What’s the general attitude of the Ukrainian refugees?
A: It kind of ran the gamut. You know, some people were thinking: “I’m never going to be able to return to Ukraine” and others were thinking, “I’ll stay here a month or two and then I’ll go home.” One interaction I had that I loved: There were a number of volunteer interpreters there, and one gentleman who lives in New York but came from Ukraine showed me a picture of his niece who lives in Kiev and there's this Russian tank that's completely charred and turned upside down, right in the middle of the city, and she is standing on the tank with her biceps flexed. She was probably six years old, and I thought “Man, that is perfect—that is the Ukrainian spirit.”
So in places like Kiev, I think people are starting to feel more comfortable, but then this same gentleman has an uncle in Kherson, which was one of the first cities to fall to Russia. He can’t even text his uncle, because if his uncle is getting texts from an American phone number, they're going to come after him. So he had no idea what was going on or if his uncle was safe or how things are going there. It's a heavy situation, and so important.
Q: What did this trip teach you about your own clinical practice? How might your experiences influence your approach to patients in the future?
A: I think it reiterated the need to ask the patient what it is they want out of the visit or what they really want ultimately. A lot of people would come in with cold symptoms, but it was just an excuse to talk to someone. They didn't really care about the cold, they knew it wasn't a big deal, they just wanted to talk to somebody. It strongly reiterated that human connection in medicine that often goes by the wayside for lots of reasons.
Also, the trip helped me learn to be a little more creative with having limited resources. I think of doctors who go to developing countries who feel like they can’t do anything because they’re used to having medications and supplies and other necessary things. In Poland, though, we had a pharmacist there, that was great, and a bunch of physicians from different specialties. Often we had to put all our heads together and be creative, which was really cool. Even though we do work in teams here in Utah, it was a different aspect of teamwork in healthcare.
Q: You mentioned that you were planning on going to Ukraine, but ended up spending the full two weeks in Poland. What happened?
A: I had a friend who was in Poland at the same time as me who had been doing some transportation of refugees to different places and assisting with visas, things like that. The refugee center was in Warsaw, and my friend had been in Krakow in the south and he asked me to come down and join him, along with a number of other physicians. I wasn’t able to get a large passenger van, though, which is what they needed for transport. Because of that, I wasn’t able to help out very much at that end. However, they had a lot of refugee activities going on at the main train station in Krakow, so I worked at a clothing tent, giving out clothes to refugees.
One thing that was amazing to me about that was it was a good-sized tent, had a fair amount of clothes of all sizes and everything, but a significant number of the donations came from other Ukrainians. Some of them said, “Well, I already have two or three pairs of clothes, I don’t need more than that so I’m going to donate the rest.” I mean, first of all, to donate from having so little is obviously remarkable, but then also to accept that people don’t feel the need for ten pairs of clothes like they do in America. So it was really cool to see how giving they were of what little they had.
Q: Is there anything more you’d like to share about your experience?
A: It was wonderful and terrible. You know, it was very worthwhile, but it is hard to deal with and process. At the end of every day, that first week, our team would get together and talk about what happened to us that day, and that was really helpful, but it was difficult emotionally.
I’m glad I went. It was worthwhile for me, and hopefully for them. But whether I helped them or not, I am changed for the better.