Grass Wars, Thieves and Disaster Tourists: Life at a Canadian Field Clinic on the Poland-Ukraine Border

Galina Bunesky sat quietly in a chair while Canadian doctor Daniel Kollek listened to her heart. Her daughter and two grandchildren looked on excitedly nearby.

“She felt sick and dizzy,” said Bunesky’s daughter, Marina Petrova.

The family had traveled 770 kilometers from Kropyvnytskyi in central Ukraine to the Korczowa-Krakow border crossing between western Ukraine and Poland. It’s an 11-hour bus ride on a good day – and it was hardly a good day.

They were waiting inside a large, white tent on the Ukrainian side of the border, packed with hundreds of people fleeing the war by bus or car.

Inside was a field clinic staffed by volunteers with the Canadian Medical Assistance Teams (CMAT), a disaster relief organization set up in 2005 in the wake of the deadly earthquake in the Indian Ocean and the tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India.

“She is very tired after so much road and all these difficulties and she has very high blood pressure,” said the Ukrainian-Canadian translator Natalya Halych. “That’s why they had to ask for help.”

Bunesky left the clinic shortly after with some blood pressure medication and advice to see a doctor when she came to Poland.

“Thank you very much, it was a very nice surprise. I am touched by the care I received,” she said in Ukrainian as she walked away with her family.

‘They are all cold, hungry, tired’

CMAT has a list of 1,000 doctors, nurses, paramedics and psychologists who voluntarily make their time available and pay their own way to help in disaster zones around the world.

This is Kollek’s first broadcast, but the emergency room doctor, who is Jewish, says it is a personal broadcast for him.

“My family fled Europe in World War II, and those who came out escaped – and those who did not come out, no one came to help,” said Kollek, who is usually based in Burlington, Ont., West of Toronto.

He is part of a 15-man CMAT team deployed to help refugees trying to escape the war in Ukraine. Last Saturday, he worked with paramedic Scott Haig of Vancouver and registered nurse Teresa Berdusco of Edmonton. CBC News spent five days with the group as they got the clinic up and running.

Kollek, who is usually based in Burlington, Ont., Consults Teresa Berdusco, a registered nurse from Edmonton, while Scott Haig, a Vancouver paramedic, left, working on his laptop at Krakow’s clinic. They are part of a 15-person CMAT team in Ukraine. (Margo McDiarmid / CBC)

On the first full day, the team saw a steady stream of people looking for help.

“They are all exhausted. They are all cold, hungry, tired,” Berdusco said. “Their blood pressure is high. My blood pressure would be elevated if I lost my home and had to move to a new country.”

Haig, who has been on nearly a dozen humanitarian broadcasts, said he has never seen anything like it.

“The amount of people coming through is just incredible,” he said. “It’s hard to see the number of people really getting through … maybe a thousand a day at this border crossing.”

Refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine are resting and eating a meal inside the tent at the Korczowa-Krakow border crossing before heading for Poland. (Margo McDiarmid / CBC)

The mobile clinic is not designed to treat trauma wounds, such as severe bleeding or broken bones. These patients are sent to nearby hospitals.

Instead, the clinic is there to diagnose problems that, if left untreated, can become more serious, such as hypertension, diabetes, cough and stomach problems. Most can be handled with some medication and reassurance.

“These are things that could be seen in a family doctor’s office if that office was there,” Kollek said.

Fluid situation on the ground

Since 2005, CMAT has performed close to a dozen broadcasts in disaster zones, but this is the first in a conflict zone.

Members of the team found out the hard way that it is more complicated to offer help in a war – a minefield of organizational turf wars, ever-changing needs, thieves and disaster tourists.

“It’s a fluid, fluid situation. Every day we have 10 plans in place and 11 are canceled and then 20 more come up,” said CMAT CEO and co-founder Valerie Rzepka, who is a primary care nurse. .

People, mainly women and children, arrive at the train station in Przemyśl, Poland, by train from Ukraine on Tuesday. Poland has received more than two million refugees since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. (Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images)

The situation is also very personal for Rzepka, who is Polish Canadian.

“That border … is only 150 miles from where my family is,” she said. “If that boundary moves, my family could be affected.”

Poland has received more than two million refugees since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. Local volunteers, companies and municipalities have stepped in to help – transform the school gymnasium into dormitories and offer food, clothing and support. A new Polish law allows refugees to work and receive health and social benefits.

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Two weeks ago, Rzepka and Brandon Duncan, a registered nurse, visited border crossings between Poland and Ukraine to see where the CMAT clinic would be most needed.

They settled on Hrebenne, a small border point about 350 kilometers southeast of Warsaw. It was staffed with one doctor who needed help to take care of a growing stream of refugees.

But two weeks later, when the CMAT team arrived, the place had grown into a small village.

“Now there are thousands of people there and tents everywhere and NGOs serving hot meals,” Rzepka said. “It’s interesting how things have completely exploded in two weeks.”

Turf wars, wannabe doctors

This raised the question of whether there was still a need for the Canadian clinic. Rzepka and her team tried to make it work, but ran into bureaucratic obstacles and local turf wars that made it difficult to arrange even a few tents.

“It’s unfortunate that you somehow fight with people over grass when you should be working together – and ideally you would work together, but egos get in the way,” she said.

Then five boxes of CMAT medical supplies disappeared from a storage shed at the border.

Ukrainian refugees cross the border into Hrebenne, Poland. (Margo McDiarmid / CBC)

“Things always go well,” said Duncan, who is on his fourth international broadcast.

“I’ve had things go on every mission I’ve been on, and I had a feeling this was going to happen. Everyone wants what it takes to make themselves look good and get what they want out of the missions. “

At the same time, people walked around the border camp Hrebenne in camouflage clothes and claimed to have medical experience. Kollek calls them disaster tourists. A man showed up with a bag of medical supplies.

“A weird pile of stuff in shoeboxes and so on, and so on [he] threw it on the table [and said] ‘Can I become a volunteer? I’m a tactical doctor, “Kollek said.” We’ve had a lot of people claiming to be tactical doctors. One of them told me … he has good knife skills. It becomes a big problem when they actually get in the way. “

Refugees are waiting at the border crossing in Krakow. They are held back until another group of refugees crosses into Poland, and then they are allowed to move towards the border. (Margo McDiarmid / CBC)

‘We go where the need is’

It was clear that the team was looking for a new place.

“We are going where the need is. So if we do not see the need on the Polish side and there is a very pronounced need on the Ukrainian side, that is what we need to respond to,” Rzepka said.

CMAT contacted the Polish Medical Mission, a humanitarian organization operating a clinic in Krakow, inside Ukraine. Six people had died of heart attacks at the border recently and the group was in desperate need of backup.

A mother is holding her child when Kollek, on the left, gives some medicine to get teeth at the clinic in Krakovets. The CMAT team went to the clinic after contacting the Polish medical mission and learned that it desperately needed help. (Margo McDiarmid / CBC)

Registered nurse Berdusco said it was the right decision to try to help those who passed through the transit site.

“It prevents them from getting sicker because they still have days of travel ahead of them,” she said. “So if we can … treat their exposure damage or anything they have now, they do not have to stop until they get where they want to go.”

The first full day the clinic was in operation, the staff saw a gentle stream of sick children and exhausted adults. Late in the afternoon, a man rushed into the tent looking for a doctor. His mother sat unconscious in a wheelchair in the line of refugees waiting to cross the border.

The team ran out to the elderly woman, who was dehydrated and slipped in and out of consciousness. They gave her intravenous fluids and called an ambulance, which drove her across the border to a hospital in Poland.

Kollek, in the center, helps a woman who was slipping in and out of consciousness, to get into an ambulance in Krakovets. She was given intravenous fluids and taken to a hospital in Poland. (Margo McDiarmid)

“Today, I really felt like we were doing a meaningful job,” Kollek said. “The lady we evacuated by ambulance to a Polish hospital was doing well, I heard from the ambulance staff.”

CMAT plans to operate the field clinic for at least 90 days and will extend it if the need arises.

The organization has not completely given up its original clinic location in Poland. It plans to establish a small presence there when more volunteers arrive this week from Canada. Four hundred new volunteers have joined the CMAT list since the war began, it says.

This trip to Ukraine is Kollek’s first volunteer broadcast with CMAT. The emergency room doctor based in Burlington, Ont., Is Jewish and said this project is very personal to him. (Margo McDiarmid / CBC)

For Kollek, the trip is already a success.

“The number of people who thanked us from all over the place … it’s hugely important because it’s a bad feeling to stand alone,” he said.

“They see that we are here, they come to us [and ask], ‘Are you the Canadians?’ I think that’s a huge thing. ”

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