Oksana’s first instinct was to stay behind.
Russia had invaded Ukraine, but as a nurse, Oksana wanted to continue to work and care for the sick and injured: “The hospital needed me there.”
Oksana stayed long after the invasion began, but the fighting kept going, the missiles and bombs kept falling. Eventually, the hospital where she worked was destroyed.
It was time for Oksana, her adult daughter and her infant grandchild to flee.
Her husband and son-in-law stayed to fight.
She hasn’t heard from her husband since.
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My name is Lisa Prytula. I’m a first-generation Ukrainian-American. My parents and their families escaped Ukraine during World War II, hiding in fields and fleeing on foot while German and Russian fighting destroyed their homes and communities. After many years of forced relocation and displacement, my parents eventually came to the United States and Canada and now are proud naturalized citizens.
When Russia invaded in February, I felt anger, grief and helplessness. But I knew I had to help in the best way I know — nursing. My parents instilled in me the importance of service to our global community. Like Oksana, I am trained as a nurse with more than 30 years of experience in health care. I speak fluent Ukrainian and have been on several medical missions to Ukraine.
I believe nursing is loving people when they are at their weakest.
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Oksana and her family were among many I encountered in Poland where I spent three weeks in an orphanage, a refugee center medical clinic and a hospital helping provide care and support for families that had fled Ukraine.
Poland generously treats the Ukrainians as guests who come in all shapes, sizes and ages. They are mostly women and children, but there are orphans, disabled individuals and even pets. They are professionals, laborers, farmers, students and retirees. They are from all over Ukraine. At a massive refugee transit center in Poland, as many as 10,000 Ukrainians are accommodated. World Central Kitchen provides three meals a day plus snacks. Classrooms offer daily lessons, arts, crafts, games and story time for children. Medical, dental, psychiatric, spiritual care and veterinary services are offered. I volunteered with multinational medical professionals in the busy medical clinic which operates 24/7 to treat acute and chronic medical conditions for Ukrainians across the lifespan. Emotionally, it was some of the hardest and most rewarding work I have ever done.
Petro and Olena and their 2-month old baby, Marko, escaped Ukraine when their apartment building was destroyed by missiles. Marko had been born just two days before the invasion. Petro and Olena had managed to get an expedited passport for Marko so they could cross into Poland as a family. Olena was experiencing post-traumatic stress that would need ongoing treatment.
Like Oksana, many families had left husbands, brothers or sons behind. One young mother, Natalia, whose husband had stayed as she escaped their Russian-occupied village, was traveling with her two small children. They had fever, dehydration, gastrointestinal illness and lethargy. They were treated and medical staff checked on them twice a day.
I visited Katya, a retired school teacher, for several days for quiet conversations. She had escaped when her home was destroyed by missiles. Her sister was killed in the attack. Katya had been in the center for more than two months and suffered from pneumonia. “I have nowhere to go and nobody to turn to. I want to go home.”
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A more than 60-year-old orphanage relocated to Poland shortly after the invasion. Of 100 employed caregivers, only 13 were able to evacuate with the orphanage. It had 120 children under age 7 and about two dozen volunteer refugee caregivers with their children.
Lesya, one of the paid staff members, had left her own adolescent children with her parents in Ukraine. Her husband was fighting the Russians. Lesya cared for three orphaned infants under 6 months old. She wants to go home, but she “can’t leave my babies.” I cared for the little ones so Lesya could have a quick nap, shower and phone her family in Ukraine.
The orphanage has plenty of food, clothing, toys, and diapers. It needs money for sustained support.
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I have never experienced such a massive scale of health care operations. Poland is a beautiful and generous country that is providing unprecedented service and humanitarian relief to its Ukrainian neighbors and the world.
Ukrainians are brave, resilient, humble and grateful.
I’m proud to have worked alongside the Polish people and medical volunteers from around the world, and I’m grateful for the generous cash donations from my colleagues, friends and family.
As a nurse, this is the best work I’ve ever done. I wish I could stay forever and look forward to the day I can return.
Lisa Prytula, M.A., RN-BC, is senior director for regulatory affairs at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. Through online fundraising, she purchased medical supplies and equipment to donate to Ukrainian relief efforts before taking time off to spend three weeks volunteering. To safeguard privacy and confidentiality, names have been changed.