For Dr. Trina Helderman, meeting and treating some of the refugees coming out of Ukraine was a shocking tale of how quickly one’s life can change.
“One of the refugees shared that they had literally just made dinner, they set it out on the table, the family sat down to eat, and they got a phone call and the neighbor said ‘Hey, there’s an evacuation route. We’re leaving in three minutes. If you want to go, you need to come now,’” Helderman told CNN.
“Their dinner is probably still sitting at the table.”
Some of those fleeing Ukraine after the Russian invasion had only minutes to leave behind their lives as they once knew them. Some had even less, forced to escape under bombardments. Adding to that stress, many are leaving behind loved ones; most men have to stay behind to fight and many elderly residents cannot make the journey to safety.
It’s these types of war trauma – destruction, shelling, family separations, death – that could cause long-lasting mental health problems for the refugees.
At one of the reception centers for refugees in Warsaw, Dr. John Roberts of International Medical Corps, described how even the arrival to a safe space can be very disorienting.
“It’s like when you come out of a dark theater and come into the light and all of a sudden everything is just overwhelming,” said Roberts. “You get off the train and you don’t speak the language, you don’t have any money, your credit cards don’t work. Just overwhelming.”
Humanitarian crisis continues
This year’s World Health Day on April 7 is taking place as one of the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II unfolds. According to the UNHCR, over 4 million people have fled Ukraine so far.
Humanitarian aid organizations around the globe have mobilized to help and are now reporting back about what is needed. Doctors with two organizations providing aid to those affected recently spoke with CNN about some of the health concerns they are seeing in the refugee centers and what aid they hear is needed inside Ukraine.
We spoke with Helderman from Medical Teams International, a faith-based nonprofit that responds to disasters around the world and provides medical and humanitarian aid, and Roberts from International Medical Corps, a global nonprofit organization that was originally started by volunteer doctors and nurses.
Helderman was recently in Romania and Moldova assessing and treating people. Roberts started in Moldova and then headed to Poland. Both are now back in the United States.
Helderman said in places under heavy bombardment hospitals are dealing with a lot of “orthopedic trauma.” They are likely treating injuries associated with the fighting and shelling – fractures, loss of limbs, head injuries.
International Medical Corps and Medical Teams International have sent supplies to Ukrainian hospitals and are working with various local organizations and government officials to get more aid inside the country.
The UN estimates that at least 180 metric tons of medical supplies have been delivered, and more than 470 metric tons are on the way.
Water and food are a major need throughout the country, but nonprofit workers say getting aid to some regions can be dangerous.
“Getting the supplies in on the west is a lot easier for sure than getting things into the east where a lot of the conflict is happening. So, trying to find those access windows, trying to coordinate through the ‘humanitarian corridors’ as they call them, to hopefully better ensure safe access. But you also hear that there’s a humanitarian corridor arranged and then it gets attacked. So yeah, it’s quite complicated,” Helderman said.
Roberts says that IMC has been working in Ukraine since 2014 and they have been coordinating with their local contacts who help with “finding safe routes through and just trying to be really deliberate about safety protocols.”
In an email to CNN, Steve Gordon, Ukraine humanitarian response adviser for Mercy Corps, a nonprofit working in Ukraine, Romania and Poland, writes from the heavily shelled city of Kharkiv:
“While the United Nations is getting aid into some areas, we’ve seen through the failure of humanitarian corridors that many people are only surviving through support from small Ukrainian civil society organizations like church groups, which are coordinating essential deliveries such as food and medical supplies. These amazing volunteer networks are working as hard as they can but they are stretched to the max.”
Aid needed outside Ukraine
“In between food, water and shelter, people need to feel safe,” Roberts told CNN from Warsaw. “A lot of these refugees have experienced unspeakable traumas. This accommodation center actually had a psychologist.”
To help with the widespread mental trauma, Medical Teams International is preparing to train volunteers and local organizers to help with psychological first aid.
“Psychological first aid is to prepare, look, listen and link,” Helderman said. “Listen and see what’s their main stressor because the main stressor could just be, ‘I’m going to be out of diapers in the next day.’”
Besides the mental health problems, doctors are seeing a great need for medicines to treat chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and HIV infections – diseases refugees would otherwise have under control but either had to flee without their medication or are no longer able to refill.
Helderman, who has been doing aid work for about 14 years, says that each crisis brings about its own unique needs. With the refugees coming out of Ukraine, she’s seeing a large need for cancer treatment drugs.
“There were a lot of patients under chemotherapy, different cancer treatments, and that’s all been interrupted because of the conflict. Helping those individuals to continue on their therapies, to be evacuated and have some sort of continuity of care – it’s kind of huge.”
Whether it’s treatment for chronic diseases or mental health trauma, the need for aid will be long lasting.
“This is not going away anytime soon. We just implore people to stay engaged and stay informed.” Roberts said.
One of the best ways to provide help, according to Helderman, is through monetary donations. She says even though it might feel impersonal, “If you’re able to give money, it is allowing someone to go buy the things that they need or to buy the medical supplies that we need to send in.”
CNN’s Impact Your World has a list of vetted charities you can donate to here or you can click the button below.