Urology and Ukraine: Volunteering on the Polish-Ukrainian Border

By: Kelly Swords, MD, MPH; Laura Bukavina, MD, MPH | Posted on: 01 Jul 2022

On February 24, 2022, when the first bombs dropped and Russia invaded Ukraine, many Ukrainians began to flee the country. As of May 13, 6.1 million people, mostly women and children, had fled Ukraine. Poland houses the greatest number, with a total of 3.3 million.1 The majority have crossed at the Medyka border, with an estimated maximum of 12,000 people a day. The border has been flooded with people, mostly women and children, as men under the age of 60 are required to stay in Ukraine and fight. In this crisis, one of the groups that acted immediately was Sauveteurs sans Frontières (SSF), a nongovernmental medical relief organization. They erected and staffed a medical tent in Medyka, Poland on the Polish-Ukrainian border on February 27 (Fig. 1).

At the Medyka border, as of mid-April, SSF medical volunteers had treated over 5,000 patients and provided services to many thousands more. The medical tent houses an extensive variety of prescription medications, medical equipment and supplies. They are committed to providing 2 medical professionals (at least 1 medical doctor) at all times. They are also routinely sending medical supplies and other necessary items to hospitals and shelters throughout Ukraine.2

Figure 1. The medical tent in Medyka, Poland on the Polish-Ukrainian Border.

Figure 2.
Dr. Monga assisting a woman to the medical tent.

Since the end of February, many of us around the world have watched the daily news of Russia’s continued attack on Ukraine in disbelief and dismay and wondered how to help. Would donations find their way to the people who really needed them? My opportunity came directly from the urology community. While I was wondering if there were anything I could do, Laura Bukavina, MD MPH, flew to Poland, drove to the Ukrainian border, found SSF and has since connected physicians either personally or via social media to volunteer. Following in Laura’s footsteps, and with the guidance of other providers who had and were volunteering, Manoj Monga, MD and I began organizing donations and supplies to take with us (Fig. 2). A few weeks later, we were on our way, first to Warsaw followed by a 4-hour drive to the border.

Did we practice urology at the border? Once, maybe twice, but for the most part we were field medicine doctors. We saw a variety of ailments, including hypertension, gastroenteritis, allergic reactions, upper respiratory infections, presumed COVID, burns, old wounds, pink eye and 1 instance of nocturnal enuresis (a true win for the pediatric urologist on shift). We took vitals, checked glucose, deciphered and then gave medication, dressed wounds, started intravenous drips, checked on women in labor, and, likely most importantly, we were there to listen and care.

How did we communicate with those seeking medical assistance? Most of us do not speak Ukrainian or Russian; however, there are many volunteers, local and from all over the world, on the border who do. When in-person translation was unavailable, we relied on technology using our phones, FaceTime and Google Translate.

The majority of time when we were not working a medical shift was spent helping in other ways (Fig. 3). The border is now a space filled with resources. On arrival, people find medical assistance, places to sleep, areas for children to play, essential amenities (eg baby wipes, coats, toiletries etc), SIM cards, veterinary care for their pets and pets that they rescued, food, beverages, snacks and transport to Tesco, a mall that has been converted to a center to help people sort out their next destination. Volunteers further fill the corridor offering help with bags, giving directions and staffing the tents lining the path. We remained busy sorting and packing supplies to send into Ukraine as well as distributing hats, gloves, sandwiches, stuffed animals, Matchbox cars and bubbles to children on both sides of the border.

Figure 3. Dr. Swords sorting medications to send into Ukraine in Medyka, Poland.
Figure 4. Dr. Bukavina examining a baby at the Polish-Ukrainian border.

At press time, the crisis in Ukraine is not over, and we should not forget that it continues as the time passes. We went there with the hope that we would be useful, but also concern that we might not. (Surely someone would need a Foley? Right?) Many of us feel that our super-specialization impedes our ability to help, but in fact this experience proves that medicine is a universal language (Fig. 4). We should all recognize that we have extremely valuable skills outside our specialty, and we can help. If you are interested, several organizations including SSF continue to look for medical volunteers.

“We saw a variety of ailments, including hypertension, gastroenteritis, allergic reactions, upper respiratory infections, presumed COVID, burns, old wounds, pink eye and 1 instance of nocturnal enuresis (a true win for the pediatric urologist on shift).”

It is impossible to do justice to or even relay all of the stories we heard or everything we saw and felt. I can still hear the nonstop “thump, thump, thump” of roller bags on the paver stones that was always in the background, the sound of escape, movement toward safety and the hope for better. I also continue to think about the Ukrainians we met who told us they did not like or want to be referred to as refugees and I understand. Their situation is beyond comprehension for most of us, even those of us who were there, and assigning a term like “refugee” makes them different, less relatable. At the end of the day these people who are running for their lives are just like us and our loved ones. They are doing the exact same things we would do: hurriedly gathering a few belongings, leaving the lives they have known and heading toward safety. And just like we would, they need people to show up for them.

During one overnight shift, a woman who didn’t need medical assistance walked into the tent and said, “Thank you for being here and not abandoning us.” We left the border amazed by the many people from all over the world who are tirelessly working to help Ukraine, with the hope that we as a global society will continue to show up for this and any other humanitarian crisis. We have no doubt, when we think about our specialty, that urology as a community will.

  1. Ukraine Refugee Situation. 2022. Available at https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine.
  2. Sauveteurs sans Frontières: Who Are We? 2022. Available at https://www.sauveteurs.org/who-are-we/.