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Volunteering on the Poland-Ukraine border

By Wanda Warrington (known as Wendy)

It is 10 weeks since we have been hearing of the conflict in Ukraine.  As we enter the week celebrating the International Day of the Midwife it is fitting that we share this poignant article written by midwife Wanda (Wendy) Warrington from Bury, Lancashire. She describes the traumatic experiences of women in the war zone and how she, and other healthcare volunteers, have provided care.




I have just returned from my second stint of volunteering on the Polish /Ukrainian border at Medyka which is a village in Southeastern Poland. My first experience was in Przemysl 7 miles from the border with Ukraine where I volunteered at a Humanitarian Centre. Previously  it was a disused shopping centre which was hastily converted into a Refugee reception point as thousands of women and children fled their homes in the Ukraine at the outbreak of the war with Russia. They queued for hours sometimes days in freezing conditions waiting to cross the border in the clothes they stood in, with their most valued positions hastily packed, if they had time, in Bags for Life. Their husbands, partners, fathers and other male family members left to fight for their country. They were tired and cold. Weary from travelling days to get to the border across the vast terrain of Ukraine packed into trains with limited facilities with their children and other family members including their mothers and grandmothers in the hope to get to safety. Many had already experienced the air raid sirens and fled to air raid shelters and cold underground bunkers . They had windows blown out of their homes from the constant bombing and attacks and spoke of neighbours homes being flattened. Having no water or power, sitting for hours on end in darkness, they listened to their towns and cities being destroyed by constant attacks. They did not choose to flee, they were forced to, and as they finally crossed the border they are met by volunteers offering the hand of human kindness helping to carry their bags, offering hot drinks and food, a smile and a  hug . Simple actions of human touch an act of kindness. These images are the ones that are imprinted in my mind. The stories of the journey and experiences so very vivid. Memories of their lives recounted to an army of volunteers from all over the world of which I was one.

What made me leave my family and beloved grandchildren to travel to Poland and take 3 weeks off work?  It was that I never expected in my lifetime to see this happen again after World War 2. My personal family experiences etched in my memory of my great grandmother and aunt and my grandfather being sent to Auschwitz and experiencing the horrors there that only my grandfather survived. I just wanted to help in any way I could and this started at home with collecting and sending donations of aid to Poland. I speak Polish so I was fortunate to secure my time working for the city of Przemysl under the direction of the mayor in a medical point at the Tesco Humanitarian Centre seeing refugees with health issues from coughs and colds to those needing to have dialysis. Many fled without their medication for blood pressure or diabetes but mainly it was the pregnant women I came to see. When I arrived and asked about seeing pregnant women I was informed by officials at the Humanitarian Centre that there were none! So I set off for a walk around and spoke to the other volunteers and found that there were women who were pregnant but no one was asking the question. With my fetal doppler in hand I started to see women offering routine antenatal checks either on their makeshift camp beds in the centre or at the medical point. Many had not given a thought to their unborn child as they were determined to flee to safety with their other children and family members. Women reported not feeling fetal movements for days! The fear and anxiety etched onto their faces aged these young women beyond their actual years; but then when they heard the fetal heart beat it was as if a cloud had been lifted and the stress just lifted from their faces and their eyes lit up with joy. Their hunched shoulders visibly dropped and most wept tears of joy. Had I not witnessed this myself I would not actually have believed that, by undertaking a simple antenatal check, would make such a difference and this was most humbling to me. In my 30 years of midwifery this moved me the most and I never felt prouder being a midwife then I did at that point.

If women had expressed any concerns at the centre then they would have been transferred to the hospital and I had an experience where a woman who was a type I diabetic came to see me. Her diabetes was poorly controlled, and I had no option but to send her into the hospital where she remained for 3 days. Unfortunately, her 3 children could not be cared for at the centre without their mother and were taken to a Children’s Home which was most upsetting but at least I managed to arrange for the children to visit their mother first at the hospital to reassure them and mum. It made me realise that seeing women at the centre was necessary and if all was well it stopped women being sent to the hospital and also stopped the older children being further traumatised by being separated from their mother in another country where they did not understand or speak the same language. While there were interpreters they were not always available. Thank goodness for translate on my mobile device and speaking Polish; I understood some Ukrainian which was  helpful. As time progressed there were other charities who came and the French charity Action Sante Femmes set up on the car park, first in a tent and latterly in a portacabin, with two obstetricians from Paris equipped with CTG and ultrasound  equipment. I met them as they came to the medical point to tell us they were there, as information was often not shared unless one did it themselves. This was the best news as, if I had any concerns regarding a woman, I could get her seen immediately on site without moving her to the hospital and potentially leaving her other children and increasing risk of anxiety and trauma to both child and mother. There were women who refused to go to hospital as they had buses to go to new towns and cities but at least we could send them with a printout of our findings and also get them moved quickly so they could get settled and access maternity care rather than sitting for days in the Refugee Centre.

I am thankful to the obstetricians who valued my knowledge and experience and did not interfere unless I requested their advice. Also grateful to the volunteers who called me and sent me to other Refugee Centres like Korczowa half an hour away from Tesco on the border and also Przemysl Central Train Station. I might not have seen  everyone, but I hope the women I did see that I could offer reassurance and support, and for me that is reward enough.

I have decided I am going to go back and am taking a career break and moving to Poland to continue the work I have started, which now includes seeing pregnant women in refugee centres over the border in Ukraine. It has been an honour and a privilege to use my midwifery skills at this time to support the Ukrainian women displaced by this terrible war.

My journey continues and I hope that I may continue to offer midwifery support to these displaced women.

Wendy Warrington

May 2022


Wendy is speaking at the Northern Festival on 21 June – come and join us.

Register here.

1 comment

Irene Tvedt 14 September 2022 at 16:40

Hello! I’m Norwegian and living in the UK. Decided to leave the NHS for a while and interested in using my midwifery skills for a good cause. Can any of you guide me where I can help?
Thank you:)

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