WARSAW, Poland – The three-year-old was too sick to leave his hotel room.
He has had congenital heart disease since he was born. A second surgery was already planned for when he turned three.
Then the war started.
Now, as the young Ukrainian lay in his hotel bed 500 miles from home, his oxygen levels dipped dangerously low. His pulse raced. He’d spent the night feverish and throwing up. His lips and fingertips had turned purple.
Downstairs, a volunteer doctor hustled from patient to patient in the hotel storage room being used as a makeshift doctor’s office. As Dr. Mary Tao listened to children’s lungs and doled out cough syrup, a volunteer told her about the three-year-old on the ninth floor.
Could Dr. Tao visit his room?
The California physician was expecting to see dehydration or stomach flu, like she had in other shelters filled with families who had fled the war. Volunteers knew the boy was sick, but they hadn’t heard about his heart defect.
When the doctor entered the ninth-floor room and saw him, she knew: The boy’s heart needed treatment now.
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The 5.4 million Ukrainians who have fled the country since Russia’s attack arrived in places like Poland needing food, shelter, and safety.
But, once hundreds of them reached their temporary destination – this hotel where most of the rooms are rented by Nebraskans for Ukrainian refugees – they also needed medical care.
Some were dehydrated and exhausted after fleeing home and walking dozens of miles. Others needed treatment for chronic conditions: Diabetes. Dementia. Heart failure.
And one little boy arrived suffering from a congenital heart defect.
The three-year-old and his mother are staying at the Best Western Hotel Felix Warsaw, the de facto headquarters of Operation Safe Harbor Ukraine, a Nebraska-led effort to raise funds and shelter refugee families.
For the sick boy and others in the hotel, the stopgap solution has become a cobbled-together network of volunteer doctors and nurses from Los Angeles, Chicago, Pennsylvania and Nebraska, too. They use donated medicines and supplies the doctors and nurses bring with them from across the world. They dispense over-the-counter medicines bought by Operation Safe Harbor funds at pharmacies around Warsaw.
In this spare room on the hotel’s eighth floor, volunteers, including some from Nebraska, all cross paths as they work to keep Ukrainian families healthy. It’s where, on any given day, they do whatever they can to manage the myriad health crises that unfold.
On a recent Friday, volunteer Dr. Anastasia Shnitser, born in Ukraine and now living in Pennsylvania, treated 15 patients in two hours. While Shnitser visited with patients, Nebraska volunteers managed the line of mothers and children waiting to be seen: “Are you here for the doctor? She is with someone, but please wait in the hall,” they said, using a translation app on their phones.
Nebraska-born nurses Kathleen “Nene” DeRoos Nolan and Margaret Mundy Hageman spent their days in the hotel piecing together a list of every room. Who’s staying there? What medications do they take? What illnesses and pains are they dealing with?
The pair started instituting regular room visits, checking on the medications of older patients, making sure they weren’t taking too much or too little of something. They referred people to nearby Polish clinics when an illness needed a prescription medication.
And then there’s the day when Tao and Dr. Yelena Kolezeva visited. A string of sick children awaited them in the hallway. And then they learned of the little boy upstairs, urgently needing care.
Tao, the LA-based doctor, needed to convince his mother that a trip to the hospital was necessary and wouldn’t cost a fortune. Volunteers needed to find someone who could translate both Polish and Russian when the ambulance arrived at the hospital. And they needed to rein in their own emotions – Lincoln resident and volunteer Mandy Haase-Thomas, the operations director at the Lincoln Children’s Museum, held back tears as she figured out how to get the boy care.
When the three-year-old and his mother arrived in Warsaw, they were told it would take at least a year to see a cardiologist, regardless of the 3-year-old’s diagnosis. Had they stayed in Ukraine, he possibly could have gotten surgery, his mother thinks. But it was too big a risk – shells frequently fly over the Kiev-area clinic where he would have been treated, and emergency rooms are overrun with the wounded, she said.
In both Ukraine and Poland, shelters and clinics need medical supplies. Tao and her team brought with them dozens of checked suitcases and rolling bags that they pulled off the baggage claim and lugged to their hotel. They shipped a pallet loaded with supplies that made a byzantine trip through customs before arriving in Warsaw.
In all, they delivered about 1,000 pounds of medicines and supplies, most of it they eventually drove into Ukraine. Tao put $30,000 of her own savings and loans toward making the deliveries possible.
The American doctors hosted clinics in Ukrainian churches and orphanages, where lines snaked out the doors and people waited hours to be seen.
Through her nonprofit, Agape Blessings Cure, Tao is working on establishing more telehealth resources for people still in Ukraine to alleviate pressure on a healthcare system strained by war. She’s trying to buy at-home medical exam kits – handheld devices that let patients check vitals and exams from home, using an app to connect them with doctors abroad.
A shipment of the handheld machines did arrive in Kiev earlier in the war. They were destroyed by Russian shells before Tao could get to them.
In the hotel, a stockpile of donated medicines and supplies fill up a corner of the eighth-floor room. Before, Operation Safe Harbor had a cardboard box filled with a random assortment of over-the-counter medicines. Now, the supplies take up large plastic drawers, each labeled in both Russian and English in Shnitser’s doctor’s scrawl.
DeRoos Nolan, the Omahan who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said it feels like the lessons she’s learned from each step in her career have come together as she’s helped refugee families.
She spent years working in home rehab, visiting multiple houses a day and treating different medical needs in each. She spent time working in the ICU, prioritizing needs and problem solving as quickly as possible.
Now, she specializes in infectious disease prevention – a fitting skill set for the hotel. With so many people living in close quarters, the spread of colds, flus and COVID-19 is inevitable.
Mundy Hageman, the Omaha native who now lives in a Minneapolis suburb, spent most of her career focusing on mental health with young children. She hoped to hold a group therapy session for the mothers in the hotel. But the two nurses were spread too thin, and lacked the ability to translate sessions.
At the moment, keeping families physically healthy is somewhat manageable, the two said during a Zoom interview in mid-May. Volunteers keep an ongoing supply of medicine flowing into the hotel. They’ve learned more about the Polish health care system, and know the location of all the closest pharmacies and clinics.
But in a hotel filled with stories of trauma, they’re worried about the families’ mental health needs. At a clinic in Warsaw, Nolan asked if there were any mental health supports for refugee families.
No, clinic staff said. But they offered sessions for those aiding refugees.
There’s also the fear that volunteer support will start to dwindle the longer the war goes on.
Tao only crossed paths with the three-year-old with a heart condition because the doctor missed her flight out of Warsaw that morning – she and her team had been stuck in the miles-long line of cars leaving Ukraine, after spending a week hosting clinics throughout the country.
An hour after Tao visited the boy in his hotel room, the 3-year-old was being raced to the hospital in an ambulance.
He left the hospital with a pneumonia diagnosis, antibiotics and a referral for a cardiac surgeon.
His mother was told someone would call to set up an appointment. It’s been a week and she hasn’t heard back.
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