Thanks to volunteers, the world looks a bit better

80 years ago, we were refugees; today we’re an Israeli delegation from Hadassah.

THE WRITER pauses to pose for a photo as she works at the Hadassah clinic in Poland, located in a refugee camp in the Ukrainian border area. (photo credit: HADASSAH SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
THE WRITER pauses to pose for a photo as she works at the Hadassah clinic in Poland, located in a refugee camp in the Ukrainian border area.
(photo credit: HADASSAH SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)

When I traveled to the camp in Poland – on the Ukrainian border – with Hadassah’s medical delegation “to work with the refugees,” the job description was a bit vague. I didn’t know exactly what the nature of my work would be. Heroic news items were being published here and there, such as a child whose life had been saved by the Israeli delegation, and the Hadassah delegation that had already been here garnered some impressive achievements as well. But I didn’t realize the magnitude of the contribution to the refugees. I live as part of society and I thought that I knew how to read between the lines; how wrong I was.

First, I didn’t understand exactly where we were going. Geographically speaking, I did: Poland, on the Ukrainian border. In the essential sense, I did not. I was unfamiliar with the concept of refugee transit centers: refugees arrive at the Ukrainian-Polish border, some of them after days on the road. There, they are registered and taken to one of the transit centers, which are located several kilometers from the border and can contain anywhere from hundreds to thousands of refugees. From these centers, they are taken within a few days to various European countries.

In the week that I have been here, I have not gotten used to the sight of buses arriving and columns of women and children standing in line, each clutching a suitcase or perhaps a hastily-packed plastic bag, and waiting for instructions. Such a sight is all the more chilling here in Poland.

I feel that we are watching history, but in living color.

Second, I didn’t understand the essence of our work here as a medical delegation. “So you actually do the work of a health fund?” my colleagues in Israel asked me. It’s hard for me to answer this question. People who fled for their lives, and have come here to ask for medication because they’ve run out of their high blood pressure pills; a mother who comes for anti-nausea medication for her son before their eighteen-hour journey to their new and unknown destination; a woman who asks for anti-anxiety pills – can this kind of work be called the work of a health fund?

Members of the Hadassah Medical Center humanitarian delegation with Alex and his mother. (credit: HADASSAH UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER)Members of the Hadassah Medical Center humanitarian delegation with Alex and his mother. (credit: HADASSAH UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER)

After a week here, I can tell you that every day, every person, every request here is a drama. One needs no heroic tales of extraordinary diagnoses or life-saving treatments, so beloved by the media, to understand the power and importance of this medical delegation. This is the drama of routine, the heroics that take place here in the quiet of the day-to-day.

Juxtaposed with the tragedy of thousands of homeless women and children (the men stayed behind in Ukraine), we see the amazing reality of the volunteer delegations: good people who leave everything to come to disaster-stricken places. They set up a kitchen, food stalls (French fries, frankfurters, hamburgers, pizza) – all for free, of course. There is even a stall with food for the dogs and cats that the refugees brought with them from their homes.

The Jewish involvement is particularly prominent: there are five Israeli delegations, including the Jewish Agency, Hashomer Hatza’ir (Zionist-socialist pioneering youth movement), NATAN International Humanitarian Aid, Lev Echad Community Crisis Aid, and ourselves, Hadassah Medical Organization – a large and disproportionate number in relation to the rest of the delegations; this, too, raises questions.

I also found young Israelis who were here as individuals: young men and women who had been on a trip abroad, stopped everything, and showed up to volunteer. They got up and came here on their own, just like that.

And one cannot help but wonder: Where was everybody eighty years ago? The same rural Polish landscape, the cold, the snow, lines of people forcibly removed from their homes, clutching a suitcase, headed for the unknown. Where were all these volunteer organizations? Is the difference that this time, the refugees are not being persecuted for being Jewish? Or is social media responsible for this change, this mobilization for the sake of a persecuted people on the run due to one madman’s insanity?

We of the Hadassah Medical Center delegation are operating a clinic in collaboration with NATAN and the Red Cross. The team includes two specialists in internal medicine; two pediatricians (myself among them); two members of the nursing staff; one administrative coordinator; and Dush, our medical clown. We are officially running two clinics in two large refugee centers and two others that are smaller. During our stay here, we receive requests to come to smaller centers where there are no physicians or clinic.

The people who visit the clinic are reserved. The children are quiet and polite. We realize very quickly that our job here, in addition to resolving the problem that they presented, is to enable them to release tension, to cry, to speak, to tell their story, and even to get a bed for an hour or two of sleep. Of course, there are also the more dramatic cases: infections caused by shrapnel, gangrene in the fingers from frostbite, cancer, cystic fibrosis, and a port that needs to be flushed, among others.

Dush, the medical clown, is a member of our delegation. Hadassah is the only organization here that understands the significance and the need for this type of treatment: healing for the body combined with healing for the mind. It is difficult to describe in words Dush’s powerful contribution to what is being done here. He goes among the people giving out hearts, love, and a reason to laugh. And laughter is not taken for granted here. When I need Dush for a child who comes here, I know exactly where to find him.

All I have to do is follow the sound of laughter and I know that he is right there in the midst of it. And this reminds me once again of humanity and human nature that has nothing to do with race, nationality, or religion; that has nothing to do with whether one is a refugee, a volunteer, or a Polish police officer. When a clown speaks gibberish, throws a balloon, smiles directly into people’s eyes, and speaks to them in the internationally-understood language of gibberish, everyone laughs and the world looks better, even in a refugee center.

After we have been here for a short while, Dush and I decide to leverage our mission and begin visiting the dormitory halls on our own initiative to reach out to people who do not know about the clinic or lack the energy to go there. We go among the dormitories together: he with his harmonica, his famous suitcase and his gibberish, and I with my Hadassah vest and a stethoscope around my neck. Every so often, Dush whispers to me: “That child over there looks pale. What do you think?” and convinces the child’s mother, in his charming way, to come to the clinic.

That was how we found – among others – the baby with the kidney problem and the thin, pale child who had been given a complete examination but had not been checked for celiac. These children set off for their new destination with a medical examination and recommendations for the type of test and/or treatment that will continue once they reach their new home.

The medicine that is practiced here by Hadassah’s delegation is different in essence from that of all the other medical delegations that are here. We do not stop at giving emergency first aid, but also provide professional, specialized medical care with the support of an entire hospital behind us. A fleet of consulting physicians, from all specialties, is available to us remotely 24/7.

When we were photographed with a delegation of donors, I told them that it was important to understand that a huge, unseen team was also in the picture. Physicians who could not come here offered their services over the telephone, and they help us every day. Consultants join in from ophthalmology, cardiology, endocrinology, neurology, psychiatry – and that is just part of the list.

In this spirit, one of the tasks that we decided to take upon ourselves is holistic pediatric medicine, which includes preventative care. We set up a child-friendly examination area, took out the bowl of candies and chocolates and replaced it with a basket of fruit: oranges, apples, tangerines, and bananas. We created an oral hygiene stand with a variety of toothbrushes and different kinds of toothpaste, and gave a toothbrush and toothpaste to every child who visited the clinic.

I will be returning to Israel tomorrow. I am glad I came here, despite my hesitation. If I had understood the nature of the place and the work, I would not have hesitated at all. Today, I am more proud than ever to be a medical professional of Hadassah, to be part of an organization that understands the importance of a delegation of this kind and that lives up to its mission: to provide the best and most professional medical care to any human being in need, wherever that human being may be.

I will conclude by saying that after an emotionally grueling week, and before I return to Israel, I think about the words from the Grace after Meals and understand them a little differently now: “And let us not be in need, O Lord our God, either of the gifts of flesh and blood or of their loans.”

Life is so fragile. Eighty years ago, we were here as refugees, and today we are here on Polish soil once again, this time as an Israeli medical delegation from Hadassah. How fortunate we are.

The writer is director of pediatrics at Hadassah Hospital Mount Scopus.