Patricia Levinson
Board Member, Hadassah International

Joining a team of international doctors to help Ukrainian refugees

Dr. Micky Saks with patient and child at the Hadassah Medical Humanitarian Mission on the Ukrainian-Polish border. Photo courtesy of Hadassah.

I was in awe, and I must admit, a little bit envious.

As a Hadassah International leader and a physician, Dr. Manno (Micky) Saks, President of Hadassah Switzerland and a member of the Hadassah International Board of Directors, had taken the opportunity to volunteer as a member of an international medical team staffing the Hadassah Medical Humanitarian Mission on the Ukrainian-Polish border.

(Left to right) Dr. Piotr Wacinski, Head of the Dept. of Cardiology, University Hospital in Lublin; Dr. Micky Saks, President, Hadassah Switzerland; Michal Szabelski, Ph.D. and MSc, Deputy Director for Finance and Development, University Hospital in Lublin

I called him at his home in Zurich to ask him about his experience helping Ukrainian refugees. This is what he told me:

Volunteering at the Hadassah Medical Clinic in the Przemyśl, Poland Refugee Center was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I was impressed by everything I saw and experienced as a part of this Hadassah Medical Humanitarian Mission.

I was shocked by the sheer number of refugees. I was simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the crowds of people crammed together with no privacy in this converted shopping mall. Every store was filled with beds for the refugees, who typically stayed for three to four days before moving on to their next destination. About 800 to 1,000 mostly women and children arrived every day. I was told that this was down considerably from the peak flow of 2,500 refugees daily, and that conditions were now much better. These are people whose lives have been ripped apart, and they have stepped into an abyss, an unknown future. They are extremely vulnerable, and very appreciative of any help they receive.

About half of the refugees who turned to the medical clinic for help had a disease that required treatment, about 30 percent needed medications, and the rest, among them a few pregnant women, simply wanted reassurance that they were okay. The refugees were very grateful for the medical care at a time when their lives were in turmoil. It was heartbreaking.

Initially I did not believe that Russia would invade Ukraine. However, after the invasion, as a member of the board of the largest Jewish community organization in Zurich, I started to hear the stories, particularly of the Jewish refugees. When Hadassah International, working with the Hadassah Medical Organization started to organize a Humanitarian Mission to help the refugees, I knew that I needed to be there in person to help. I knew that the medical personnel from Hadassah’s two world-class hospitals in Jerusalem, Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem and Hadassah Hospital Mount Scopus, needed special governmental permission to practice medicine in Poland, but I live in the European Union, and my medical certification would be valid in Poland. I could join the Israeli team without any problems. To my amazement, my family was incredibly supportive of my decision.

Emotionally, stepping foot in Poland was not easy. Before I went to the Hadassah Medical Clinic in Przemyśl, my wife and I travelled to Auschwitz-Birkenau to pay our respects. Standing between the railway tracks at the site where the “selections” took place was exceedingly difficult.

Working as part of an international medical team in the clinic was amazing. Our team consisted of doctors and nurses from both Hadassah’s hospitals in Jerusalem, Ein Kerem and Mount Scopus, together with a medical team from our Polish hosts, the University Hospital in Lublin. We were a truly multinational team – Israeli, Polish, and Swiss. I had no problem fitting in and was welcomed with open arms. More importantly, several of the Hadassah doctors and nurses spoke Russian, and could act as translators for the rest of us.

As a hospital-based mission, we had a tremendous advantage. If we did not have the answer to a medical problem, we could simply call Jerusalem and ask our medical experts at the Hadassah hospitals to advise us. When two Ukrainian women who had been on a methadone program for 13 years made their way across the border because Russian soldiers had stolen all their medications, we called the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem. Together we came up with a plan to bridge the medical gap until a more permanent solution could be found. Eventually we transferred them to Frankfurt, Germany for further treatment.

We spent many hours with refugees who had run out of their medications. They would present their pill bottles, and we would have to try to read the prescription – usually written in Cyrillic – determine what the medication was and find an equivalent available locally. Large numbers of drugs and surgical items donated by pharmaceutical companies would arrive daily, and we had to sort them very carefully. Some donations also came from individuals, including a large box of insulin.

We were providing healthcare 24/7, working three eight-hour shifts during the week, and two 12-hour shifts over the weekend. It was very demanding work, both physically and emotionally. By the end of the day, we were totally drained.

I was amazed at how flexible the team was, and how well we worked together. We supported one another. After work we would get together for a dinner near the hotel where we stayed – over an hour away from the border. Even the couple of very orthodox doctors would participate. They would simply go into the restaurant kitchen, give the chef instructions on how to cook a piece of salmon for them in foil, and eat that with nothing else. The local Chabad would provide Kosher food for them.

I was also surprised by the number of Israeli volunteers belonging to a number of different organizations like NATAN and Hashomer Hazair working in the refugee center, playing with the children, providing emotional support, and helping people who had lived in the same clothes for many days find new donated clothes. I was enormously proud of Israel.

Not all our work took place in such horribly crowded conditions. We were asked to provide medical care one hour each day at the General Consulate in Przemyśl, where well educated Ukrainians could find refuge with their family and pets in cozy surroundings with much more privacy.

As a doctor, the lack of privacy became an issue for me. I was not able to fully use my expertise, as in this kind of crowding, it was simply not possible to do a medical examination for a woman with a gynecological problem.

However, I was reminded every morning of how important our work was. Each day, as the Hadassah team arrived at the clinic in Przemyśl in our yellow jackets with Hadassah Medical Humanitarian Mission blazoned across the back, the refugees would applaud us and give us a “thumbs up.” Every time it happened, I teared up. I was really making a difference in the lives of those at risk!

Wow. What a story! As I hung up the phone with Micky, I knew that this is what it means to be a Hadassah leader.

Kol Hakavod Micky Saks. And Kol Hakavod to all those who make this amazing Hadassah mission possible.

To learn more about Hadassah’s humanitarian role aiding Ukrainian refugees in in Poland, visit here.

About the Author
Patricia Levinson, Chair of Hadassah International Communications, a member of the Honorary Council of the HWZOA Board of Directors, Hadassah International Communications Chair, and a member of the Hadassah International Board of Directors, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. A biochemist, she moved to Israel in 1966 with her husband, working at the Weizmann Institute of Science. In 1970, the Levinson family moved to Schenectady, New York. Patricia immediately became involved with Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America Inc. (HWZOA), moving through the ranks with multiple leadership responsibilities, including working with Hadassah International in the communications area since 2002. She has served on the National Board of Directors/National Assembly of HWZOA for 32 years, and on the Board of Directors of Hadassah International for three years. In 1992, Patricia received her MBA from the State University of New York at Albany, majoring in Marketing and Communications. Patricia lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.
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