Israel’s field hospital in Ukraine welcomes first patients as air raid sirens wail
Facility close to Ukraine’s Polish border is expected to focus on chronic and pediatric illnesses, although it is prepared for trauma
Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel
MOSTYSKA, Ukraine – Battling persistent air raid sirens, limited resources, and the shadow of wartime uncertainty, Israel’s state field hospital opened Tuesday afternoon in western Ukraine, with the first patients arriving just minutes after its official opening.
Housed on the grounds of an elementary school in Mostyska, outside Lviv, the NIS 21 million ($6.5 million) facility fills 10 outdoor tents and has also converted multiple classrooms into hospitalization wards. Beside chalkboards and educational posters lie heart rate monitors, incubators and reclinable hospital beds.
The Israeli mission’s 100 staff members – 80 of whom are doctors and nurses – will sleep on-site, in dorm-like conditions, improvised within the school building.
Yoav Bistritsky, the charge d’affaires of Israel’s embassy to Ukraine, himself currently decamped to Przemyśl, Poland, said that the civilian hospital will raise the level of care available to refugees and local residents.
“This team will bring to Ukraine the best knowledge, the most innovative opportunities that this country has ever seen,” said the Israeli diplomat.
“We promise to keep supporting Ukraine in the coming future too, and we hope to see peace in this land,” Bistritsky said, before closing his remarks with a prayer for peace and an “amen” affirmation from the assembled crowd of delegation members, diplomats, Ukrainian government officials, and media.
David Dagan, head of the field hospital mission, said, “We will do our best to be the shining star in the refugees’ medical journey.” He was alluding to the hospital’s name Kochav Meir, which means “shining star” and is a nod to former Israeli prime minister and Kyiv native Golda Meir.
“They have a reasonable level of medical care, but this is a town on the Ukrainian margins.”
Dagan said that staff had established a relationship with regional administrative and medical authorities, and area hospitals will direct some patient traffic to the field hospital, which has 150 beds across its emergency, pediatric, and obstetrics and gynecology wards. The hospital, he added, is intended for civilians, and expects most of its traffic to be for chronic conditions and pediatric care.
“Right now, it’s more of the refugee population that’s fleeing from the frontlines,” said, Dr. Adam Lee Goldstein, head of Trauma Surgery at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, of the expected demand.
“But I’m really here to help with what I can. If there are no trauma cases from the war, and we’re just helping chronic diseases and refugees, that’s more than enough. We’re just here to show how much we want to help and that we care and, practically, we’re very ready to do anything.”
“We don’t really know” what to expect in terms of trauma cases, Dr. Goldstein said, but the team is “prepared to do major operations if needed.”
Local patients, already lined up to receive the field hospital’s free medical services, quickly took advantage of the world-class care temporarily available at their doorstep.
“I had problems with my thyroid and my neighbor told me about the new hospital, so I decided to come and get checked,” said Mostyska resident Halyna Vatsyshyn.
Other patients on site said they came for free checkups, or second opinions from the Israeli staff for known medical issues.
While the field hospital did not build a separate operating theatre, it is located just meters away from a local facility with a full operating room, where the Israeli medical staff will augment local practitioners.
“We were just there this morning and we’re going to work in full cooperation,” said Dr. Goldstein. “We’re going to work in teams with our peers from that hospital.”
Only minutes after those comments were made, doctors from Mostyska’s local hospital came to the field hospital to ask for Israeli assistance with an urgent case.
Sleepy Mostyska, a town only 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the Polish border but 70 kilometers (some 44 miles) from Lviv, is not the optimal location for serving the refugee population, mostly huddled in major city centers or actively transiting out of the country. However, the location was chosen in coordination with local authorities in order to balance the security of the hospital’s staff against the ability to serve Ukrainians.
“We’re not worried that people won’t come,” said Yoel Har Even, the field hospital’s administrator.
Like many members of the delegation — who were, among other things, chosen for their ability to speak Ukrainian or Russian — Elhanan Bar On, the hospital’s medical manager and advance team leader, said his family originated from a town in the greater region.
“And I stand here today lending a helping hand to everyone… and sharing knowledge with our Ukrainian colleagues because medicine has no boundaries,” Bar On said.
Anastasia Keidar, a social worker who spent her childhood in Odesa, is one of the team members actually born in Ukraine.
“It’s very emotional, I was born in the area and I came here for a specific mission, to help people in crisis and seeking refuge,” she said.
Dr. Eduard Zalyesov was born in the contested eastern Luhansk region, a frontline of conflict with Russia since Moscow first invaded Ukraine in 2014. His sister still lives in Dnipro, and although he tries to talk to her every day, he will not see her while serving in Ukraine.
“To move around Ukraine is a little problematic,” he noted.
Nurse Sergey Mazis was born in Kyiv, but said his Ukrainian roots were not his primary motivation for joining the wartime delegation.
“Even though I was born in Ukraine, I came more out of connection to the humanitarian mission. If this were in another place in the world, I would have come,” Mazis said.
Har Even agreed that “our mission is to make sure the Ukrainian people know they’re not alone in this crisis.” He also recalled that many mission members — including his own family — have “deep roots in this land that go back many generations.
“All my grandparents were rounded up in the spring of 1943 and sent to the camps. Miraculously, they survived and here I am,” he said in remarks during the hospital’s opening ceremony.
“There are too many stories and reminders that we have a clear moral obligation not to look away.”
At the same ceremony, a Mostyska municipal official noted that Israel had many Holocaust survivors, some of whom fled from Ukraine, and lauded the fact that their descendants had now come back to Ukraine to help.
More than three weeks after the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s air alert system remains notoriously imprecise, often blasting multiple times per day over large swaths of territory. The closest Russian strike to Mostyska to date was last Sunday’s attack on Yavoriv’s military base.
Multiple air raid alarms wailed across the hospital campus on Tuesday afternoon, to which Dr. Goldstein said: “For us [from Israel], it’s pretty normal. We’ll see what happens, because [the fighting] is still pretty far away.”
While much of the Israeli team dashed into the elementary school for cover during alarms, donning surgical masks against COVID-19 upon entering the space, local Ukrainian staff — inured to the constant air raid sirens — calmly availed themselves of the outdoor buffet.
The Israeli delegation is currently set to stay a month in Mostyska, with an option to extend. But as the fighting slowly inches west, with a Friday airstrike on an aircraft repair facility in Lviv and previous air assaults on airports in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk, in addition to last week’s attack at Yavoriv military base, the situation may deteriorate, such that the Israeli delegation may consider amending its plans.
The Israeli state field hospital is a collaborative effort of the Health Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and Sheba Medical Center, which is operating the hospital, and is funded by the government, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.