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‘They lost everything’: Israeli medics treat Ukrainians amid chaos on Moldova border

Team from United Hatzalah, the first foreign responders to reach frontier, carry out surgeries, ultrasounds and tend to trauma as thousands flee Russian invasion

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

United Hatzalah medical personnel on the ground in Moldova, February 28, 2022. (Courtesy/United Hatzalah)
United Hatzalah medical personnel on the ground in Moldova, February 28, 2022. (Courtesy/United Hatzalah)

An Israeli medical team on Ukraine’s border with Moldova said tens of thousands of refugees are crossing over in need of medical and psychological support after harrowing journeys to safety.

The team, from the United Hatzalah emergency response organization, started treating people on the ground on Monday after arriving the night before.

The Israeli medics were the first foreign medical team to reach the border in Moldova, and have set up a command post in a synagogue in the capital, Chisinau.

Many Ukrainians spent several days traveling to the border as they took cover from missile strikes and struggled with cold and lack of food.

Linor Attias, a medic with the team, said of the refugees, “They feel that they lost everything, and they did. That’s the reality.

“Many, many people are crossing this border. Many are coming with nothing. Most of them are women with children, and grandmothers, elderly, because the men are not allowed to leave,” she said.

“They were very, very hungry. They told us there are no grocery stores open on the road. They didn’t take enough food for the journey to the border because they thought it’s about a few hours of driving, but it took them several days,” she said.

Most Ukrainians fleeing the fighting are moving to other areas of Ukraine, or to Poland, but Moldova is taking in around 70,000 people per day, and expects to receive around 1 million refugees. The country was unprepared for the crisis but is opening up schools, a university campus and other areas to shelter the refugees.

“Moldova is a quiet country. It doesn’t have conflicts, it doesn’t belong to the European Union, doesn’t belong to anyone,” Attias said. “It doesn’t have the resources that are needed to handle these thousands of refugees, but the country still opened its heart and land for them.”

The United Hatzalah medical team headed to Moldova. (Courtesy/United Hatzalah)

Many women arrive on foot with children after leaving their husbands and vehicles behind. They are afraid and unsure what to do when they cross the border, and fear for those they left behind. Attias said the team is seeking to speak to the refugees in the “critical hours” after they cross to reassure them they are safe and connect them with necessities including blankets, food and shelter.

The team is administering medical care, mainly related to exhaustion, cold and hunger, and tending to some injuries. Hypothermia is expected to become a major problem as the temperature drops and snow falls in the coming days. Several pregnant women have come in with complications.

The group of 12 includes EMTs, paramedics, doctors, a dentist, and members of Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit. Another 30 people are set to join the mission

The Hatzalah team has met many Israelis, who are safe but struggling to find transportation from Moldova to Israel. An Israeli man was mistakenly killed by Ukrainian forces on Monday while trying to flee to Moldova. The Hatzalah team also treated a Gazan Palestinian and a Jordanian man, Attias said.

“We did it with love and happiness that we are able to help a person, a human being, no matter where they came from,” she said.

The Hatzalah team is trained in psychological trauma treatment, and dealing with people who are struggling to cope with their losses. Attias said she met a man who was holding a bag of sand, and wouldn’t let it go. He told her his house had been destroyed by an explosion and the bag was debris he had taken from the remains.

Refugees arrive at the Medyka border crossing after fleeing from Ukraine, in Poland, on February 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

“I’m trying to have them living in the situation. I’m not telling them, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be better.'” Attias said. The arrivals need “to understand that ‘Now I’m safe. I’m not harmed, my body is okay, I can do everything, I can think, I can receive help.'”

The Hatzalah team flew from Israel to Bucharest, Romania, then found a minibus to take them to Moldova. They squeezed in the vehicle with all their gear for the 12-hour ride. In Moldova, they were welcomed by the Jewish community and joined a wedding ceremony there on Sunday night.

They have opened a field hospital and clinic, where they operated on a woman whose toe had become infected during the long walk to the border. They have technological equipment that connects them to personnel in Israel, who monitor the team on the border, field phone calls from refugees in several languages and analyze scans and tests the team in the field carries out.

They did two ultrasounds for pregnant women with Sheba Beyond, a “virtual hospital” system that connects them with Sheba Hospital in Ramat Gan. Hospital staff in Israel are able to check scans and blood tests done in Moldova and recommend treatment.

“We had this pregnant woman, we actually had an ultrasound to see if her baby was okay because she didn’t feel his heartbeat, she didn’t feel movement,” Attias said. “He was perfect. They saw movement, saw his heartbeat, everything was okay. She was just so tired she didn’t feel anything.”

Dr. Zev Neuwirth, a physician from Miami with the Hatzalah team, said they are administering to acute medical needs first, then taking care of chronic conditions, since many people fled without their medicines.

Students gather around campfire to warm themself at the Medyka border crossing after fleeing from the Ukraine, in Poland, February 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Then they provide psychological care and attend to “civil affairs,” such as food and hygiene.

Sometimes the care is “nothing more than a hug, a blanket, a little doll, candy,” said Neuwirth, who is an internal medicine specialist and has served as a US Navy physician with the Marines.

They are working with some local Moldovan teams and agencies who received the Hatzalah medics “with open arms,” and there is a team on standby in Israel in case more staff are needed, he said.

“Moving forward, there’s a constant assessment of the situation because it’s very fluid,” he said. “Any obstacles that come up, the staff is exceptionally capable. It’s not their first rodeo, unfortunately.”

The UN estimated Monday that over 520,000 people have already fled Ukraine since the invasion started, including 280,000 in Poland. The total figure may reach 4 million people in the coming weeks, the UN said.

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