Portland doctor describes his experience helping Ukrainian refugees in Poland
From around the world, Dr Joe Howton watched with concern the scenes of war unfold in Ukraine as the Russian army launched its invasion earlier this month.
The 35-year-old Oregon-based emergency doctor felt helpless as he watched millions of displaced people rushing to the Polish border in search of safety and asylum, many of them women and young children.
“Like most Americans, I was quite stressed,” he said.
Howton, who works as an emergency specialist at Providence Portland Medical Center, said he immediately began to educate himself on how he could help organizations such as the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and other groups well. establishments providing humanitarian aid.
What he’s heard is that it could take weeks or even months before the vetting process and paperwork clears him to travel to Poland, where the first line of effort is helping Ukrainian refugees.
“It just wasn’t going to work for me,” Howton said. “I really wanted to get out there fast and do something.”
Instead, he booked a one-way ticket to Warsaw, the Polish capital and largest city where thousands of volunteers have traveled in recent weeks to start lending a helping hand to help Ukrainians fleeing the war zone in their native country.
He left for Poland on March 10, spending 11 days helping local doctors triage patients at refugee centers near Warsaw and in other parts of the country closer to the Ukrainian border.
Upon arrival, he acquired a personal translator and connected with doctors in Poland and Western Ukraine to find out how he could help.
“It’s really heartbreaking to receive a Whatsapp message saying, ‘Hey after the bombing last night, we really need external bone fixation rods, we need pulse irrigation systems, we need ‘wound aspirators,'” Howton said. “I’m here, just a guy, getting these almost desperate messages, calls that touch your heart.”
Howton arrived with a suitcase full of medical supplies, much of which he paid for out of his own pocket. He also brought much-needed surgical equipment and donated it to local medical providers.
Although he is not licensed to practice medicine in Poland, he was able to provide assistance to doctors. being the first to see refugees complaining of minor ailments, from migraines to chest pains.
He also used a mobile ultrasound kit to ensure mothers – some of whom had traveled several miles to reach the Polish border – that their unborn babies were healthy.
“To put the ultrasound on their abdomen and see a viable fetus kicking and moving, and they could see the images…it was really nice to provide that level of comfort for people,” he said. .
Despite harrowing accounts of atrocities in Ukraine, Howton said the atmosphere inside these refugee centers was generally optimistic.
He remembers children running happily through the warehouse-like buildings that house refugees and playing football between rows of beds.
“As you can imagine, it’s really hard to get any meaningful rest.” Howton said. “You have no privacy and you’re there for days or weeks in those places, so it’s very difficult, but they’re just relieved to be alive. It’s kind of a mix of emotions.
One of the nonprofits Howton has worked with is a group called “Od Granicy Do Mieszkania,” which translates to “From the Border to the Apartment.” The organization was started by a Polish software developer named Kuba Lang, who worked with partners to create a digital system that matches Polish volunteers with Ukrainian refugees seeking transportation away from the border and into cities like Warsaw, where they also help them find apartments to stay. .
Lang described Howton as a “star” and said he was happy to meet the Portland doctor during his 11 days in Poland.
“The whole (Polish) nation and the whole world are helping Ukraine, and it’s absolutely amazing,” Lang said. “For me, that more than makes up for all the negativity and sadness I experienced on the border.”
He is especially grateful to volunteers like Howton, as he has heard dozens of first-hand accounts of what is happening in Ukraine.
Lang personally made five trips to transport refugees from the border. He said those car rides are often quiet, stoic events in which he usually has more people than are legally allowed to ride with him.
He describes a conversation with a mother who said that when the air raid sirens sounded in their community, she told her children it was a game: a race to see who in their neighborhood could reach the bomb shelter. local bombs the fastest.
“To me, it’s completely unimaginable,” he said. “…it’s hard to find the words, in Polish or English, to describe it.”
For Howton, his time providing aid in Poland is not over. He is gathering more medical supplies to send to doctors he was in contact with in Ukraine and Poland. He also filled out paperwork to be approved by the Polish Ministry of Health so that upon his return he could practice fully.
Despite his rush to get to Poland and start helping, he warns others against what he has done. He encourages all those seeking to help to go through the proper channels and to be vetted by aid organizations, so they can get started as soon as they arrive.
Howton said one of the most important things he can do is relay the message he has heard repeatedly from Ukrainian refugees: what is happening on the ground in Ukraine is brutal and barbaric. .
“Some of the older people who have been around longer know what the Nazis did. They say the Russian forces are even worse,” Howton said. “It’s really hard, and it still haunts me. is tempered by the beautiful things I have seen being done in Poland by Poles and other Europeans who have come to volunteer.
For those interested in getting involved, Howton and Lang suggested groups seeking continued support in their mission to help Ukrainian refugees.
Team Ukraine Love is a collaboration between two Canadian non-profit organizations that distribute supplies and provide assistance to Ukrainian refugees crossing the Polish border.
World of Connections is a New Jersey-based nonprofit that delivers humanitarian supplies to countries in need around the world.