Children who are afraid to fall asleep, people who feel they can’t breathe, patients with very high blood pressure who are at risk of having a stroke. This is the situation in a Metro station from Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, in the midst of war after the Russian invasion. This is the story of Dr. Morten Rostrupfrom Norway, part of the team of Doctors without borders (MSF) in Kharkiv that carries out medical consultations in the metro stations, where the population seeks refuge from the bombings.
She was sitting on a bench across from me in one of the subway stations from Kharkiv. Since the outbreak of warthe metro stations work as shelters and thousands of people sleep on the platforms and in the cars. The woman had been thrown out of bed when a missile hit his building. He had seen his aunt die just a few meters away. She couldn’t talk about it, but she broke down in a torrent of tears as she sat looking down. She was shaking. She was not the only one who sought medical attention that night. There were many others.
A little girl seven years suffering constant nightmares and was afraid to fall asleep. people who experienced physical pains that they couldn’t explain. People who felt like they couldn’t breathe. A woman with sky-high blood pressure who was at risk of a stroke. An old man who showed me the photos of his three grandchildren. One of the children had been killed in an airstrike two days earlier, the other two were in hospital, one seriously injured. The children’s father had also died. The old man had suffered a stroke and had high blood pressure. He couldn’t sleep.
Desperation in Ukraine
I have had many touching encounters with different people during these last weeks. Our Doctors Without Borders team goes from one metro station to another. In the afternoons we carry out dozens of medical consultations before taking out our sleeping bags and spending the night there. I have seen the despairlack of hope, confusion, the inability to understand how they ended up in this situation: losing family and friends, their homes, the future they had imagined for themselves. I have seen the constant fear experienced by many, and how some people they collapse in terror when the sound of air raids fills the air.
Before traveling to Kharkov, I spent a few days in the city of Vinnytsialocated away from the front line. We wanted to get in touch with psychologists Ukrainians who could help displaced people – many with psychological trauma – passing through the city on their way to safety in other countries. It was there that I met Olena, a Ukrainian psychologist.
During our conversation he had a lost look. He had relatives in the besieged city of Mariupol and had barely known how they were doing. He told me that now he couldn’t work. Before the war, he had worked as clinical psychologist and treated patients with personal problems. “The patients have stopped coming,” she said. “The problems they had before seem so tiny now.” Looking at me, she said, “I’m glad to meet you. You’re very calm. You don’t have the stress and worries that we have. The fact that you’re here has a calming effect“.
I have worked in many crises and war zones, but I have never heard it said so explicitly that our mere presence has such a significant impact. The medical-humanitarian work does not only consist of the concrete help that we provide in the form of medicines and treatments, but also in the presence of people from other countries and how they stand by the people who are suffering from this crisis. Our presence can provide hope, peace and a sense of security. It is a concrete symbol that we care. We are there as human beings, directly and closely. We do not forget them.
Attacks in Kharkiv
The situation in Kharkiv it is tremendously complicated. The air strikes they happen day after day. Parts of the city have been razed. Half of its 1.5 million residents have fled. There are those who have chosen to stay, or were unable to escape due to lack of money, family or other contacts, or simply because they were too old or ill to travel. Some of the people we have met have told us that they prefer to die in their own city. We assume that many of the most vulnerable people have not left. Many have lost their homes, especially in the eastern part of the city.
I don’t know how many lungs I have listened to, throats I have examined, and stomachs I have palpated. Not because I had a strong suspicion that something was seriously wrong, but because I knew that a thorough review and discussion goes a long way. reassure patients.
Their stress levels they are so high that just a small symptom can cause great anxiety in some patients. When I assured them that nothing serious was wrong, they thanked me. I saw the relief in his eyes. The fear of getting sick in these circumstances it haunts many, especially patients with chronic diseases.
The other victims of the war
It’s easy to forget these war victims: people with crescents mental problems and those who live with chronic diseases. When a conflict breaks out and they do not receive medical follow-up, this type of illness can have devastating consequences. There are patients with cardiovascular diseases, pulmonary diseases, epilepsy, diabetes, cancer. Some die. In some war contexts, perhaps even more than those who die from injuries caused directly by the violence. others are seen forced to flee to a place where they can receive the medical care they need, preferably to another country.
Still, it is encouraging to see how people help each other. Small communities have been created in each metro station. The displaced people know each other well. Volunteer groups work to provide everyone with food and water. At one of the stations, a medical student runs a small clinic and pharmacy. The toilets are cleaned. Everyone in Kharkiv contributes in their own way. Many also arrive contributions from abroad. we see a feeling of unity very strong, but six weeks is a long time, especially when a solution is not in sight in the near future.
still does cold in seasons of subway. It seems that spring will come late to Kharkiv this year.
MSF mobile clinics in the metro
Although many of Kharkiv’s residents have fled, many of those who have stayed have taken refuge in metro stations to escape the relentless bombardment. The teams MSF provide primary care consultations at various stations mobile clinics. “The city now seems rather deserted. There are few people on the streets and most of the shops are closed. There are still some pharmacies and markets open so that the population can find food, but the main market in Kharkov is closed,” he says. Michel-Olivier Lacharitegeneral coordinator of MSF in Ukraine.
Since the conflict began, the bombing they are continuous, especially in the northern part of the city. “The shelling continues throughout the day, following a seemingly random pattern. Sirens warn people and there is also an alert system on smartphones. The mermaids They ring several times a day. It’s quite distressing,” says Lacharité.
For the 350,000 people that, according to the local authorities, remain the city, the stations of meter are the safest place. “There are three lines in the city of Kharkov and most, if not all, of the stations are in use,” explains Lacharité. Each station welcomes a hundred people during the day, a number that can easily double or triple at night. “Most of the people who live in the subway are elderly or vulnerable“, Add.
MSF has installed mobile clinics in several stations of the three metro lines of the city. Some consultations take place at night. Despite the curfew, teams can move from one station to another through the tunnels. Since the beginning of the activities, there have already been more than 500 medical consultations, mainly due to respiratory tract infections and hypertension, consequences of the living conditions in the subway, but also of stress. “Even in the subsoil, the vibrations of the bombardments are felt on the surface,” emphasizes Lacharité.
In addition to medical consultations, MSF also offers support in terms of mental health. For children and adolescents now living in the subway, the most common stressor is afraid to go outside. “The behavioral potential induced by anxiety it increases as war and instability persist and insecurity becomes a permanent feature of life. However, the children here are coping quite well with the extreme situation at the moment,” Devash Naidoohead of MSF’s mental health activities.
MSF teams are also distributing essential goods for day to day: microwave ovens to heat food, detergents and water filters to provide drinking water at night. “There are tents and makeshift beds set up everywhere, which means that the health situation in these posts is not always ideal,” says the MSF doctor. Guillaume Monteau.