“To see first-hand what a destructive force the war is, and how Ukrainians have been affected by it, is a devastating experience. It has left a much more distressing impression on me than the images on a TV screen,” said Violeta Nomeikienė, a lecturer from the Department of Nursing, Faculty of Medicine at Vilnius University. Together with her, the lecturer Veronika Šilinskaitė-Legenzova, and Ingrida Mereškevičiūtė, a student in the Additional Nursing Studies programme, shared the impressions of their trip to Ukraine.
There, two Lithuanian medical teams provided humanitarian assistance to help the Ukrainian healthcare system cope with the challenges posed by the war. Each group consisted of 12 people: 4 doctors and 8 nurses. The bus carrying the healthcare professionals was accompanied by a truck bringing aid to Ukraine. In addition to essential medications and other supplies, it also included equipment to be used during military operations.
No hesitation about their choice
“When I saw an advert for health professionals willing to go to Ukraine, I signed up and let my parents know the very same evening. At first, it was hard for them to understand my decision, but I felt confident that if I was selected, I should go,” said V. Šilinskaitė-Legenzova. V. Nomeikienė echoed her fellow lecturer, saying that she made the decision to go to Ukraine without giving it much thought: “I saw that there was a need for help and that was it – I was on my way. Maybe that was the impulse for many, but then some of them talked to their families, thought it over and changed their minds. I had no such hesitations.”
Meanwhile, I. Mereškevičiūtė, a student of Additional Nursing Studies, said she saw the initiative as an opportunity to gain new experiences: “I was sure that in Ukraine, some extra hands wouldn’t go amiss. Of course, since I'm a recent graduate, some people were sceptical – they wondered why I was going there, and what I was going to do. Others, on the other hand, said that my lack of experience was not a barrier that should stop me from going. And they were right – even with little experience, there was plenty to be done. In addition, our team was highly-motivated and friendly, so if there were stressful situations, anxiety or strong emotions, we supported each other.”
The decision to enter a war-torn country may seem irrational and frightening to many. V. Šilinskaitė-Legenzova admitted that she experienced anxiety on more than one occasion. “The first time I felt anxious was during the pre-departure safety briefing. A soldier talked to us about having food rations in case of needing to retreat, about the risk of being taken hostage, being beaten, raped... The second time was just before the trip when we were asked to write down the size of the bulletproof vests and helmets that we needed,” she said.
Air raid sirens on the first night
According to the lecturer V. Šilinskaitė-Legenzova, the incoming Lithuanian medics had a gloomy first encounter with Kyiv: “It was a very long journey because we couldn’t take the regular route. We drove on secondary roads, so we could only cover the 500-kilometre journey in 10-12 hours. There, we saw damaged buildings, tanks and other military equipment. We had to stop for inspections at the blockades all the time. Finally, we arrived in Kyiv before the curfew started, at around 10 pm. Although I don’t watch horror films, I imagine that the scene we saw would match them perfectly. It was pitch black, the windows of the buildings were taped and there were no people around.”
V. Šilinskaitė-Legenzova said that as soon as she arrived at the hotel where they were staying, she closed the curtains in her room and placed her bulletproof vest, helmet and survival backpack nearby. She also carried a wallet on a belt around her waist at all times. During the interview, she showed us that she was still wearing it: “It’s become like a second skin for me, I can’t imagine going back to a usual handbag. It holds everything you need: passport, cash... During the briefing before the trip to Ukraine, we were advised to bring gold jewellery or cigarettes, which are very good for bartering if needed.” During the first night in Kyiv, she had to hurriedly grab all the listed items and run down the stairs to the basement. “We went down to the shelter at 3 a.m. We were allowed to leave at around 6 a.m., and just an hour later we were on our way to work. We must remember that the people of Ukraine have been living in such a tense situation for days and days,” said V. Šilinskaitė-Legenzova.
Surprised by the number of patients
As the military activities in the Kyiv region were already over by the time the Lithuanian medics arrived, they headed to Mohyliv-Podilskyi, a town on the Ukraine-Moldova border. “Perhaps we all thought that we would be working with the wounded on the frontline after they had received primary care. However, our team was based in Mohyliv-Podilskyi, a small town the size of Jonava, where there was a district hospital. There, we worked together with our Ukrainian colleagues doing the usual kinds of medical work. As there are many Ukrainians who, instead of fleeing abroad move to quieter areas of Ukraine, the population there had doubled, but the number of hospital staff remained the same,” said V. Nomeikienė.
After a local TV report showed the medical professionals arriving from Lithuania, the hospitals were quickly flooded with patients. According to V. Šilinskaitė-Legenzova, a lecturer from the Faculty of Medicine, there were so many patients that they were forced to wait not only in the corridors adjacent to the doctors’ offices but also in the reception area and in the paediatric department. “There were even some patients who came to the hotel where we were staying. Our doctors did their best – even on their way home, they were always available to see patients. In some difficult cases, children were offered treatment options in Lithuania,” she explained.
Challenged by a harsh emotional background
According to the student I. Mereškevičiūtė, during the period of providing medical assistance in Ukraine, they did not have to deal with active military actions. However, after one night on the Ukraine-Moldova border, when the sirens had wailed incessantly, they learned the next day that a railway station had been bombed 70-80 km away from where they were working. A similar situation occurred during their last overnight stay in Kyiv when the medical team was on their way back to Lithuania. The student said that she heard shots, and the next morning she learned that Russian missiles had fallen on one of Kyiv’s administrative buildings.
Nonetheless, according to the student, the language barrier and the gloomy atmosphere were the biggest challenges they faced. "I studied Russian at school and I understood it, but speaking was more difficult. Most of the time I was with colleagues who spoke Russian, so if I didn’t understand or couldn’t say something, they would help me. The severely emotional situation was also frustrating. We dealt with people whose lives had been ruined, who no longer had homes, and some who no longer had families. It was also hard to see that, despite all the support being provided to Ukraine, there was a lack of resources for the examination and treatment of patients,” said I. Mereškevičiūtė.
V. Nomeikienė echoed her response, saying that although there were no active military operations in the town where they were working, tensions were palpable all the time. “People were stressed, as their relatives, friends and acquaintances were dealing with the consequences of the war – some were wounded, some dead and some had their homes destroyed. People wanted to be comforted and to talk, while others asked as if seeking confirmation, whether we believed in Ukraine’s victory, whether we really support the Ukrainians, and whether we know what is going on. When they were reassured that we knew, we followed the news and we supported them, it made them feel more at ease and glad that they were not alone,” the lecturer said.
At the end of the conversation, V. Šilinskaitė-Legenzova explained that the Ukrainians particularly appreciate the help they receive from Lithuanians: “Many times, I heard the Ukrainians refer to Lithuania as a friendly country that was constantly providing a lot of help. Everyone is hoping for victory and feels our support. The locals hugged us and saw us off in tears – it was very hard to leave.”