‘Being Here Is Part of Our DNA’: Israelis Treat Refugees at Ukraine Field Hospital as War Enters Fifth Week
A few days ago, doctors at Israel’s field hospital in western Ukraine and medical staff at a hospital thousands of miles away near Tel Aviv faced a tough decision about treating a young patient suffering from severe anemia.
“The seven-month-old infant, who came to the field hospital with his mom, was very pale, very weak, could barely cry and couldn’t even breastfeed,” said Dr. Yoel Har-Even, who runs the Israeli medical center that opened last week in Mostyska, a town close to Ukraine’s border with Poland. “Initially, we thought that we will do a direct blood transfusion from one of our delegates but then we discussed it with our colleagues in Israel and we understood that it’s very difficult to do it under current conditions, especially when the donor is an adult and the one who needs to accept it is a seven-month-old baby.”
After careful consultation, it was decided to move the infant to Poland — where “he arrived safely at a hospital with the best medication, and where they will give him blood but in a very controlled environment,” Har-Even explained.
It was just one example of the plight of the 1,500 locals and refugees who have flocked to the Israeli hospital for treatment in recent days, Har-Even told a forum of journalists on Wednesday as he spoke about the challenges and operations of the medical staff’s first shift there, which ends on Sunday.
“We have seen patients with heart problems. This area is also endemic to hypothyroidism due to a lack of iodine in the water,” said Har-Even. “We treated refugees who ran away from Mariupol, and we had a family who came especially to see us from the Donetsk area, whose daughter was operated in Israel for a kidney issue a few years ago. When her parents heard about the Israeli field hospital they drove 48 hours to come and see us and have her checked.”
Most of the patients seen at the hospital have been elderly, children or pregnant women, since men aged 20-60 have been drafted into the army to defend against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is now in its fifth week.
One, 75-year-old Nina, was helping transfer refugees from the bombarded city of Kharkiv to the Polish border, when at some point she felt chest pains and lost consciousness. Locals evacuated her to a hospital in Poland, where she underwent therapeutic catheterization and was released for follow-up. When Nina arrived at the Israeli field hospital, doctors found symptoms of blood vessel blockage and hospitalized her for observation.
For Har-Even, who has deep family roots in Ukraine, the operation is an extension of Israel’s habit of sending humanitarian missions to assist with crises abroad.
“We send medical delegations all over the world. Next week we are going to be in Haiti and then we are going to Zambia, and during COVID we helped our friends in Italy and also in other parts of Europe,” said Har-Even. “So being here is part of our DNA.”
The 66-bed field hospital — dubbed “Kochav Meir” (Shining Star) in honor of former Prime Minister Golda Meir, who was born in Ukraine and has become a local inspiration in the country’s defense against Russia — is housed across a number of tents on the grounds of a school and is staffed with 65 medical personnel, with a capacity of treating 150 patients at once.
“From time to time there are sirens and then we need to run to the next shelter, which is in the school, where we are also treating patients,” Har-Even remarked.
The field hospital was opened by Israel’s Sheba Medical Center together with the Israeli government and includes a children’s ward, a maternity ward and delivery room, an emergency ward, a primary care clinic, an outpatient clinic, a command center, and a pharmacy. Laboratory and imaging capabilities, including X-ray labs, are also available, as well as remote medical technologies.
The war has displaced over 10.5 million people either within Ukraine or abroad as refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency — about a quarter of the country’s population.
“A lot of local physicians were drafted to the army and right now the necessity, and the increasing number of the population who fled to this area, put a huge burden on the current medical system, which from the start is a little bit I would say poor or weak,” said Har-Even, who serves as Sheba’s Director of the International Division and Resource Development. “From the border with Poland to Lviv, we are the only true hospital that can support the local community, but also those who are on transport running from the Lviv area towards Poland.”
“Our contribution to the situation in Ukraine is to bring Western medicine and the ability to have a one-stop-shop for the patients that we are seeing, and provide them with specialist care from orthopedics, family physicians, neurologists, and psychologists,” he added.
Israel on Thursday announced that it is joining an effort to assist transporting 50 tons of humanitarian and medical equipment collected by Israeli citizens and sent on five flights to Ukraine, together with Keren Hayessod, the World Zionist Organization, and the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel.
Har-Even said while the field hospital did not set up its own operating theater, it is located just a few steps down the road from a local facility that does have one, where Israeli medical staff work with local practitioners to perform surgeries as needed.
“We already conducted two operations with the local hospital and later this week we are planning our first Caesarean section that will be handled together by our gynecologist and a local one,” Har-Even noted.
As the weather gets warmer, Har-Even projected more health issues related to food poisoning, a lack of purified water and other illnesses, in addition to the chronic diseases facing refugees lacking basic medical care.
“The war has deteriorated the baseline situation of the local people. Most of the people in the rural country cannot take care of themselves regarding medication and operations,” Har-Even explained. “Although the health care system is free, you need to pay for medication, which most of the people here cannot afford and therefore they neglect it.”
The current medical shift of the mission will be leaving Sunday, to be replaced by a second one that will stay until mid-April.
“What is needed here is definitely longer-term to build the capacity of the local hospitals to cope with situations for the future,” Har-Even said. “We are in discussions for options right now with the World Health Organization and some NGOs that have already shown a proof of concept, to come and replace us after mid-April.”
“Definitely, this area deserves such a facility for a longer time.”