Excerpted and translated from a Hebrew op-ed piece in the April 19, 2022, issue of Ma’ariv by Dr. Rivka Brooks, director of pediatrics at Hadassah Hospital Mount Scopus
When I traveled to the refugee center on the Polish-Ukrainian border with the Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO)’s Medical Humanitarian Mission “to work with the refugees,” I didn’t know exactly what the nature of my work would be. Heroic news stories were published here and there, such as the one about a child whose life had been saved by members of an Israeli humanitarian mission. But I didn’t realize the magnitude of the contribution we were providing to the refugees. 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 an essential sense, though, I did not. I was unfamiliar with the concept of refugee transit centers: Refugees arrive at the border, some of them after days on the road. There, they are registered and then taken to one of the transit centers, located several kilometers from the border and containing anywhere from hundreds to thousands of refugees. From these centers, they are transported within a few days to various European countries.
In the week that I have been here, I still 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 come to our clinic to ask for medication because they’ve run out of their high blood pressure pills. A mother comes for anti-nausea medication for her son before they embark on an 18-hour journey to their new, unknown destination. Another woman comes for anti-anxiety pills. Can this kind of work be called the work of a health fund?
Every day, every person, every request here is a drama. One needs no heroic tales of the 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, of 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 under age 60 had to stay behind in Ukraine), we see the amazing reality of the volunteer delegations. They set up a kitchen and 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. The Jewish involvement is particularly prominent, with five separate delegations representing the Jewish Agency, Ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir, NATAN International Humanitarian Aid, Lev Echad Community Crisis Aid and HMO.
There are also young Israeli men and women volunteers who had been on a trip abroad and came here on their own, just like that.
One cannot help but wonder: Where was everybody 80 years ago? The same rural Polish landscape, the cold, the snow, droves of people forcibly removed from their homes, clutching a suitcase, headed for the unknown. Where were all these volunteer organizations? 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 HMO delegation are operating a clinic in collaboration with NATAN and the Polish Red Cross. The team includes two specialists in internal medicine, two pediatricians (myself among them), two nurses, an administrative coordinator and a 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 their immediate medical problem, is to enable them to release tension, to cry, to speak, to tell their stories and 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 intravenous ports that need to be flushed.
Hadassah’s delegation is the only one that includes a medical clown, because we understand the need for healing both the body and the mind. It is difficult to describe in words how our medical clown, Dush, is powerfully contributing to what is being done here. He circulates among the people giving out hearts, love and a reason to laugh. When I need Dush to help a child, I know exactly where to find him. I follow the sound of laughter and I know that he is right there in the midst of it. The scene reminds me once again of our common humanity and human nature, which 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 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 had been here for a short while, Dush and I decide to leverage our mission and visit the dormitory halls to reach out to people who do not know about the clinic or lack the energy to come to us. Dush walks around with his harmonica and his famous suitcase, spouting 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?” In his charming way, he convinces the child’s mother to bring him to the clinic for an examination.
Our HMO delegation does not stop at giving emergency first aid. We provide professional, specialized medical care, thanks to the support of a fleet of Israeli specialists, who are available to us for remote consultations 24/7.
We also offer holistic pediatric medicine, which includes preventative care. In a child-friendly examination area, we replaced the bowl of candy with a basket of fruit. We created an oral hygiene stand with a variety of toothbrushes and different kinds of toothpaste, and we gave a toothbrush and toothpaste to every child who visited the clinic.
I am prouder than ever to be a Hadassah medical professional, 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.
Life is so fragile. Eighty years ago, we were here as a persecuted people and today we are here on Polish soil once again, this time as an Israeli medical delegation from Hadassah. How fortunate we are.