How Nebraskans are helping to provide medical care to Ukrainians fleeing the war
Warsaw, Poland. (Flatwater Free Press) — The three-year-old was too ill to leave his hotel room.
Stanislav Iskra has suffered from a congenital heart defect since birth. When he was three years old, a second operation was already planned.
Then the war began.
Now, as the young Ukrainian lay in his hotel bed 500 miles from home, his oxygen levels dropped dangerously low. His pulse was racing. He had spent the night with fever and vomiting. His lips and fingertips had turned purple.
Downstairs, a volunteer doctor rushed from patient to patient in the hotel’s storage room, which was being used as a makeshift doctor’s office. as dr Mary Tao listened to children’s lungs and gave out cough syrup, a Stanislav volunteer told her.
could dr Tao visit his room?
The California doctor expected dehydration or stomach flu, as she had experienced in other shelters with families fleeing the war. Volunteers knew that Stanislav was ill, but they hadn’t heard about his heart defect.
When the doctor entered the room on the ninth floor and saw Stanislav, she knew: the boy’s heart had to be treated now.
The 5.4 million Ukrainians who have fled the country since the Russian attack arrived in places like Poland in need of food, shelter and security.
But by the time hundreds of them reached their temporary destination — this hotel where most of the rooms are rented by Nebraskans to Ukrainian refugees — they also needed medical care.
Some were dehydrated and exhausted after fleeing their homes and walking dozens of miles. Others required treatment for a chronic condition: diabetes. Dementia. heart failure.
And a little boy arrived with a congenital heart defect.
Stanislav and his mother Nataliia are staying at the Best Western Hotel Felix Warsaw, the de facto headquarters of Operation Safe Harbor in Ukrainea Nebraska-led effort to raise funds and house refugee families.
For the sick boy and others at the hotel, the makeshift solution has become a cobbled together network of volunteer doctors and nurses from Los Angeles, Chicago, Pennsylvania and Nebraska. They use donated medicines and supplies that doctors and nurses bring from around the world. They dispense over-the-counter drugs purchased by Operation Safe Harbor funds to pharmacies across Warsaw.
In this guest room on the eighth floor of the hotel, volunteers, including some from Nebraska, cross paths as they work to keep Ukrainian families healthy. Here, every day, they do whatever it takes to deal with the myriad health crises that are unfolding.
Last Friday, Ukrainian-born, Pennsylvania-based volunteer Dr. Anastasia Shnitser 15 patients in two hours. As Shnitser visited patients, Nebraska volunteers lined the line of mothers and children waiting to be seen: “Are you here for the doctor? She is dating someone but please wait in the hall,” they said, using a translation app on their phones.
Nebraska-born nurses Kathleen “Nene” DeRoos Nolan and Margaret Mundy Hageman spent their days at the hotel compiling a list of all the rooms. who stays there What medications do you take? What diseases and pains are they dealing with?
The couple began instituting regular room visits, checking older patients’ medications and making sure they weren’t taking too much or too little of anything. They referred people to nearby Polish clinics when an illness required a prescription drug.
And then there’s the day Tao and Dr. Yelena Kolezeva were visiting. A line of sick children awaited them in the hallway. And then they found out about Stanislav above, who urgently needed care.
Tao, the LA-based doctor, had to convince his mother that a trip to the hospital was necessary and wouldn’t cost a fortune. The volunteers had to find someone who could translate both Polish and Russian when the ambulance arrived at the hospital. And they had to contain their own emotions — Lincoln resident and volunteer Mandy Haase-Thomas, the superintendent of the Lincoln Children’s Museum, choked back tears as she figured out how to care for Stanislav.
When Stanislav and his mother arrived in Warsaw, they were told it would take at least a year to see a cardiologist, regardless of the 3-year-old’s diagnosis. If they had stayed in Ukraine, he might have had an operation, his mother thinks. But it was too much of a risk — shells frequently fly over the Kyiv-area clinic where he would have been treated and emergency rooms are overflowing with the wounded, she said.
In both Ukraine and Poland, emergency shelters and clinics need medical care. Tao and her team brought dozens of checked suitcases and trolley bags, which they picked up from baggage claim and towed to their hotel. They shipped a pallet loaded with supplies, which made a Byzantine journey through customs before arriving in Warsaw.
In all, they delivered about £1,000 in medicine and supplies, most of which they ended up driving to Ukraine. Tao invested $30,000 of her own savings and loans to make the deliveries possible.
The American doctors housed clinics in Ukrainian churches and orphanages, where lines stood at the doors and people waited for hours to be seen.
Through their charitable Agape blessing cure, Tao is working to set up more telemedicine resources for people still in Ukraine to ease pressure on a war-torn healthcare system. She’s trying to buy home medical exam kits — wearable devices that allow patients to check vital signs and exams from home, using an app to connect them with doctors abroad.
At the beginning of the war, a shipment of the handsets arrived in Kyiv. They were destroyed by Russian shells before Tao could reach them.
At the hotel, a stash of donated medicines and supplies fills a corner of the eighth-floor room. Previously, Operation Safe Harbor had a box filled with a random selection of over-the-counter drugs. Now the supplies take up large plastic drawers inscribed in Shnitser’s doctor’s scrawl in both Russian and English.
DeRoos Nolan, the Omahan who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said she felt the lessons she learned at every step of her career came together as she helped refugee families.
She worked in home rehab for years, visiting multiple homes daily and treating different medical needs in each. She spent time working in the ICU, prioritizing and solving problems as quickly as possible.
Now she specializes in the prevention of infectious diseases – a fitting skill for the hotel. With so many people living in close quarters, the spread of colds, flu, and COVID-19 is inevitable.
Mundy Hageman, who is originally from Omaha and now lives in suburban Minneapolis, has spent most of her career focusing on young children’s mental health. She was hoping to hold a group therapy session for the mothers at the hotel. But the two nurses were too thinly spread and unable to translate sessions.
At the moment, keeping families physically healthy is reasonably manageable, the two said during a Zoom interview in mid-May. Volunteers continuously provide the hotel with medicines. You have learned more about the Polish healthcare system and know the location of the nearest pharmacies and clinics.
But in a hotel steeped in tales of trauma, they worry about the families’ mental health. In a clinic in Warsaw, Nolan asked if there was psychological support for refugee families.
No, said the clinic staff. But they offered sessions for those helping refugees.
There are also fears that support from the volunteers will dwindle as the war drags on.
Tao only crossed Stanislav and his mother because the doctor missed her flight from Warsaw that morning – she and her team were stuck in the kilometer-long line of cars leaving Ukraine after a week of attending to clinics across the country.
An hour after Tao visited Stanislav in his hotel room, the 3-year-old was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
He left the hospital with a diagnosis of pneumonia, antibiotics and a referral to a cardiac surgeon.
His mother was told someone would call to make an appointment. It’s been a week and she hasn’t heard anything.
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