The Hadassah Clinic is the first hospital operated facility designated to serve refugees on the Ukrainian-Polish border. Every news broadcast shows the plight of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, mostly women, children and the elderly, traveling for days seeking safety in Poland after enduring the nightmare of the endless bombings of Russian’s war of attrition. Exhausted and disoriented, their first stop after crossing the border is a large refugee center, situated in an old mall in the town of Przemyśl, Poland, right next to the Medyka border crossing. It is a place of refuge and rest for a day or two. Here they can catch their breath before moving on to find a more permanent place to live.
It is here that they find Hadassah volunteers wearing their bright yellow safety jackets, able to take care of their medical needs, and often much more. Everyone, even the Hadassah medical experts – top doctors and nurses – have volunteered to give of their time to serve for a week at this refugee center.
So, why is it that Hadassah, with its two world renowned hospitals in far-away Jerusalem, is here on the border of Ukraine?
The simple answer is that Hadassah cares. Service to those in need is intrinsic to Hadassah. Treating everyone, regardless of religion or ethnic origin is the mission of our organization. As a result, Hadassah has a long history of responding to crises around the world and providing medical expertise and relief to those in distress.
As Russia invaded Ukraine, it was obvious that Hadassah had to help those caught up in what was proving to be the worst humanitarian crises in Europe since World War II. Acting Director of the Hadassah Medical Organization, Prof. Yoram Weiss reminded Hadassah supporters: “Hadassah cannot stand aside. We must try to help, especially with our history in Europe as a Jewish People.”
As in previous emergencies, Hadassah was able to mobilize immediately by coordinating its three sister organizations and utilizing the strength of each. Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America is the organization that initially brought medical relief to Jerusalem in 1912. Its work to create the Hadassah Medical Organization led ultimately to the building of the two world-famous Hadassah hospitals in Jerusalem. Several years later, as the Hadassah Medical Organization in turn reached out repeatedly to countries around the world to provide help and share their medical expertise, Hadassah International was created with a mandate to “serve as a bridge to nations around the world through medicine.”
Working together, they knew that they could launch this new humanitarian mission and raise the funds to cover the expenses. Hadassah Medical Organization immediately contacted the Ukrainian embassy in Israel and arranged to ship much needed medical supplies to hospitals in Ukraine.
However, it fell to Hadassah International, led by Executive Director Jorge Diener, to create Hadassah’s bridge to the Ukrainian-Polish border where thousands of refugees were arriving daily. With no existing local Hadassah International organization on the ground in that part of Europe, there was no one who could reach out to local authorities, establish coalitions with those NGO organizations already helping on the ground, and manage the complex logistics of launching a large humanitarian mission.
Hadassah International turned to its board of directors (on which I serve) to see if anyone had contacts with any of the hospitals in Poland near the border with Ukraine. Contact was quickly established with the large Medical University Hospital of Lublin, Poland, 70 miles from the border.
Hadassah learned that the Lublin Hospital, the designated trauma hospital for the region, was worried about their lack of experience in handling mass casualties resulting from the war while still serving the local population. They were eager to welcome a team of experts from the Hadassah hospitals. This created a starting point for the Hadassah Humanitarian Mission.
Working together, the Hadassah Medical Organization and Hadassah International created an initial five-man advance team to determine how Hadassah could best provide help to desperate Ukrainians. The three medical experts (trauma and general medicine specialists) and two representatives from Hadassah International flew to Poland. They were tasked with providing the initial training to the Lublin hospital staff, establishing relationships with the local authorities and NGOs, and deciding how Hadassah could best provide medical care to the now millions of Ukrainian women and children flooding the border.
The Hadassah doctors immediately implemented an initial mass casualty training not only for the Lublin Hospital, but also for the smaller local Polish hospitals in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border. Subsequently, the Hadassah Medical Organization sent additional trauma experts from Jerusalem to provide more extensive hands-on training. They are now also providing ongoing Zoom training from Israel as needed. The Polish hospitals are now confident that they will be able to respond effectively if more Ukrainian hospitals are bombed and large numbers of the injured must be sent to Poland.
While looking for a suitable place to set up Hadassah’s operations, the Hadassah advance team was surprised to find that there were no doctors available to treat the thousands of exhausted Ukrainian refugees crossing the border and seeking shelter in Przemyśl, the largest border refugee center in Poland.
When Diener and Hadassah Internist, Dr Ya’arit Ribak, initially walked into this large refugee center, they found a small Red Cross station staffed only by paramedics. It had been set up by the Polish Red Cross, the World Health Organization, local Polish health authorities and the Israeli NGO NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief. There was no doctor on site, and there were many patients with medical problems.
The need was obvious, and that is where Hadassah set up its humanitarian mission. The Polish health authorities gratefully handed responsibility to Hadassah to maintain all health care at this refugee center together with its new partners. Hadassah immediately took on the task of training the local paramedics and started to take care of the many sick and injured.
Fleeing with their children and parents, with maybe one suitcase between them if they are lucky, some refugees have hyperthermia from the freezing weather and unheated trains. Some have COVID or other infectious diseases. Others have run out of medication after days of traveling. After days on dirty trains, gastro-intestinal problems, infected sores, and a myriad of other problems are common. But each family has its own story of fleeing from hell, and a Hadassah doctor to take care of them is an enormous relief. The stress is not only hard on the adults – but the children also act out their fears in many ways. They all need a sense of security.
Hadassah is not only taking care of the medical needs of the refugees on the border; we are going above and beyond to help them deal with the stress and incredible problems they must overcome.
Here are just a few stories from the front lines:
A mother with a badly infected finger, an autistic teenager and two younger children was desperate. She had not been able to change her autistic son’s diaper, and he was so upset he was uncontrollable. At the refugee center, she could not go into the men’s bathroom, and she could not bring her son into the women’s bathroom to take care of his needs. While Hadassah doctors treated her finger, Hadassah International volunteers set up a privacy screen and personally washed and changed the teenage boy. He calmed down for the first time in days, and the family was finally able to get some much-needed sleep.
A Hadassah infectious disease specialist at the refugee center realized that terrible hygienic conditions (people were still wearing the clothes they had fled in days before) and dirty trains had caused infections and was spreading disease. He made posters in Ukrainian and Russian to remind people of simple steps they could take to improve their personal hygiene. Then, together with a Hadassah nurse, he brought young refugee children at the center together to decorate the posters with the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag. The stressed-out children were thrilled to “help” their fellow refugees. For a few minutes, they could just be children again.
So far, Hadassah has treated over 3,000 patients in a period of a little over three weeks, and the Hadassah Medical Organization has set up a weekly rotation to send volunteer Hadassah doctors and nurses with needed specialties to the Przemyśl refugee center.
The need does not stop, and plans are now being made to open a separate Hadassah Pediatric clinic to treat children from 0-18 years of age at another border crossing at Korcsoba. Every second, a Ukrainian child must flee its home and try to find safety. Most of them are coming to Poland.
I am so proud of this amazing Hadassah Medical Humanitarian Mission. As Hadassah International Communications Chair (a volunteer position), my phone dings many times a day with a new story or photo of how we are helping the brave Ukrainian people. I am immersed in the project; writing about it has become part of my daily activities. For me, this is my way of helping to heal the world, “tikkun olam.”
I am honored to have the opportunity to share these remarkable stories and to inspire the generous people who are looking for a way to help. Every time I meet with friends, they ask me to tell another story from the Hadassah front lines on the Ukrainian border. I am in awe of how many have then taken out their phones and made a donation to Hadassah on the spot.
I feel very privileged to be able to play a tiny role in this remarkable Hadassah endeavor. It is one I will be telling my children and grandchildren about for years to come.
For more information on Hadassah’s humanitarian role relieving the suffering of Ukrainian refugees, please visit here.