Polish and Ukrainian medical staff united in providing health support to Ukraine’s refugees

It is mid-July, and the railway station in Rzeszów, Poland hardly resembles the hectic place it was in February and March this year when millions of Ukrainian refugees arrived, fleeing the war in their homeland. It is less crowded now, but you can still hear the Ukrainian language and find newcomers, mostly women and children, who are either stopping off on their long and perilous journey to other European countries or are joining the 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees already in Poland.

During the forced journey out of their country, refugees often face harsh and precarious conditions that have severe consequences for their physical and psychological health. They often arrive in host countries feeling tired and lost, with language, financial and other barriers making it difficult or even impossible to access health-care providers and to get the services, medicines and medical supplies they need.

As part of its ongoing efforts to improve the quality and accessibility of primary health care services to Ukrainian refugees in Poland, a WHO/Europe team visited the town of Rzeszów, an hour away from the Ukrainian border. Here, a dedicated medical centre has been set up to provide free treatment for Ukrainian refugees. Many of the medical staff working at the centre are themselves from Ukraine.

Mufida Nazri, a physiotherapist and the centre’s executive manager explained why this is important.

“Ukrainian refugees needed such a place. Here they can communicate with staff in their own language, which makes things much easier. At this clinic, we have 18 doctors and health workers from Ukraine, who work alongside their Polish counterparts. We have also arranged special language classes for the Ukrainian medical staff, so they can learn the Polish medical terminology needed to pass the exams that will give them a licence to treat Polish patients in the future,” she told us.

Nazri then went on to tell us about the medical professionals working in the clinic and the facilities available.

“As well as general doctors, we have a range of specialists available to deal with the needs of Ukrainian refugees, including an ophthalmologist, a laryngologist, a psychiatrist, a pulmonologist, a dermatologist, a dentist and a midwife. We also have a vaccination point, where COVID-19 vaccines and childhood immunizations can be given, a blood test collection point, and equipment to monitor heart health and detect any problems with the body’s internal organs.”

We then managed to speak to some of the Ukrainian staff working in the clinic.

Dr Kuper’s story
Dr Marianna Kuper is a family doctor, originally from Mostyska, a small city in Ukraine around 125 km from Rzeszów. She fled to Poland when war broke out in her country.

Dr Kuper speaks excellent Polish, having studied medicine in Poland in the 1990s, then later doing her postgraduate training in Rzeszów, before returning to Ukraine to take up medicine.

At the clinic, she sees mothers with children, as well as elderly patients. This week she had 16 patients to see in one day, but back in March and April, it was usual to have up to 100 refugees queuing in front of the clinic, waiting to be seen and get treatment.

However, for many Ukrainian refugees, the language barrier can be a real problem in getting the necessary treatments for their health problems, as Dr Kuper explains.

“There are some Ukrainians who do not understand Polish at all. They pick up only some words and guess the meaning. And these people find it particularly difficult to explain their health conditions,” she says. “That’s why I think I’ve come to the right place. I feel I can help here.”

Natalia’s story
Natalia Shlapak is another of those working at the clinic. She is a 37-year-old nurse originally from Kyiv, Ukraine and fled with her 4 children to Rzeszów.

“I want to be able to continue working as a nurse in Poland and to get official registration for practicing here,” she tells us. “Meanwhile, I work with my team at the clinic, which inspires me, and I enjoy it. We learn through collaboration. If I don’t know something, my colleagues explain it to me. But, I also have 16 years of professional experience myself. We have a lot of difficult cases, and people often become very anxious and stressed. For example, when I need to collect blood, some patients are so tense that it is difficult to conduct the procedure. Yet, by saying a kind word to them, they immediately start to feel better.”

Dr Levchuk’s story
Dr Alina Levchuk originally comes from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. She works as
a paediatric otolaryngologist, focussing on treating health problems related to the ears, nose and throat of children.

She spoke to us about what it was like to be living and working in Poland and we also asked her about her future plans.

“Some people come to the clinic before returning to Ukraine. They say they want to have a consultation because they don’t know if they would have this opportunity when they get back to Ukraine. The work processes here are not so different from those in Ukraine. All doctors are the same. The only differences are in the names of the medicines, but the procedures and consultations are similar,” explains Dr Levchuk.

“Living in Poland is good; the people here have been very welcoming, and the cooperation with Polish medical staff is exceptional, but I want to return home. The question is only when – and that I don’t know. Even if the war ended tomorrow, I would not go back right away because I don’t have a place to return to. The city I come from has been so badly damaged,” she says.

The role of WHO in responding to the Ukraine war
Every day, thousands of refugee families arrive in different cities across Poland
and other European countries with an unknown future.

WHO is working with governments and partners to provide emergency health services, improve local health services and include refugees in national health systems and plans.

As Dr Paloma Cuchί, WHO Representative in Poland comments, “Ensuring the health and well-being of all people lies at the core of WHO’s mandate. This includes protecting the rights of refugees, such as those arriving from Ukraine, in their access to health-care services in the receiving countries. We also aim to include and integrate Ukrainian health workers into the Polish health system. Good health is an essential requirement for refugees to be able to rebuild their lives. ‘Health is not everything, but without health, there is nothing’”.