What it takes to organize life-saving medical evacuations from Ukraine

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The Korczowa border crossing point in Poland looks very quiet from a distance, but appearances are deceiving. On the Ukrainian side of the border, a 1km ambulance convoy waits to cross into Poland.

The convoy is led by a team of Polish doctors and paramedics, who work for HUMANOSH, a foundation set up to help refugees and a WHO implementing partner. Their goal today is to organize the medical evacuation (medevac) of 24 sick and injured patients from a hospital in Lviv, Ukraine, and they have been on the road since dawn.

Jakub Bałaban, paramedic and medical director of HUMANOSH, jumps out of his vehicle to tell us about the difficulties of his mission: “Transporting patients across Ukraine and the border has been quite a challenge, not only because of the security risks, but also because of the distances we have to travel, the time it takes and the conditions of the patients we evacuate – many of whom are seriously ill.”

Once across the border, he and the other paramedics will drive over an hour to the new Medevac Hub, strategically located next to the airport, near the Polish town of Rzeszów.

The Hub, which opened on September 1, 2022, is operated by the Polish Center for International Assistance (PCPM) emergency medical team, with support from WHO, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the European Union. It aims to provide a safe space for patients arriving from Ukraine before they are flown to receive care in other European countries. Among the services offered are 24/7 nursing care, screening for various illnesses, vaccinations and mental health support.

Adam Szyszka, PCPM medical coordinator explains how the Hub works: “At the Hub, we can care for 20 patients at the same time, while accommodating up to 30 family members or friends of our patients.

Although we are not a medical facility, our goal is to provide the best care when transferring from Ukraine via Poland to medical facilities in the European Union”.

One of the patients we see at the Medevac Hub is 12-year-old Jaroslav from Poltava province in central Ukraine. He was brought in a convoy with his mother, Natalia, and both are due to fly to Sweden in the morning. Jaroslav desperately needs a liver transplant, as Natalia tells us: “Jaroslav’s health has really deteriorated. He had his first transplant 3 years ago, but the transplanted organ is starting to fail. With the ongoing war in Ukraine, it is currently impossible to perform another transplant operation there. Fortunately, our doctors told us about the medical evacuation program and with their help and that of the Ukrainian Ministry of Health, we were able to make the trip”.

For Jakub Bałaban and his team of doctors and paramedics, reaching the Hub will be far from the end of their journey: “After delivering our patients, we are going to southern Poland to a hospital in Czeladź, where we We will look for 15 patients who have completed their treatments, before driving them back to Ukraine. With any luck, we will be back in Lviv around 1am”.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the European Commission has supported medical evacuation operations from Poland to 18 European countries, with more than 1,000 Ukrainian patients transferred abroad for treatment.

Dr Paloma Cuchί, WHO Representative in Poland, summarizes why medical evacuation operations are so important: “Ensuring the health and well-being of all is at the heart of WHO’s mandate. Seven months of war have had a devastating impact on the health and lives of Ukrainians and have strained Poland, where many refugees are seeking safety. The number of injured people in Ukraine is rising every day, pushing its health system – and those of countries hosting refugees – to a critical point. Our role today is to provide life-saving treatment to seriously ill patients and relieve the health care system of their war-affected country. Hence European solidarity and our joint effort with national and international partners to organize medical evacuations.

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