From across the world, Dr. Joe Howton watched in alarm as scenes of war unfolded in Ukraine when the Russian military launched its invasion earlier this month.
The Oregon-based emergency physician of 35 years felt helpless seeing millions displaced, scrambling to the Polish border in search of safety and asylum, many of them women and small children.
“Like most Americans, I was pretty stressed out,” he said.
Howton, who works as an emergency specialist at Providence Portland Medical Center, said he immediately began inquiring about how he could help organizations such as Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and other well-established groups providing humanitarian aid.
What he heard is that it could take weeks, maybe even months, before the vetting process and paperwork would clear him to travel to Poland where the front line of the effort is to help Ukrainian refugees.
“That just wasn’t going to work for me,” Howton said. “I was really wanting to get over there quickly and do something.”
Instead, he booked a one-way ticket to Warsaw, the Polish capital and largest city where thousands of volunteers have traveled in recent weeks to begin lending their hands to help Ukrainians fleeing the war zone in their homeland.
He left for Poland on March 10, spending 11 days helping local doctors triage patients inside refugee centers located near Warsaw and in other areas of the country closer to the Ukrainian border.
When he arrived, he acquired a personal translator and connected with physicians in Poland and Western Ukraine to learn how he could help.
“It’s really heartbreaking to get a Whatsapp message saying, ‘Hey, after the bombing last night, we really need external bone fixation rods, we need pulse irrigation systems, we need wound vacs,’” Howton said. “Here I am, just one guy, getting these almost desperate messages, appeals that tug at your heartstrings.”
Howton arrived with a suitcase full of medical supplies, much of which he paid for out of his own pocket. He also brought much needed surgical equipment and donated them to local medical providers.
While he isn’t licensed to practice medicine in Poland, he was able to provide assistance to doctors by being the first to see refugees complaining of minor ailments, from migraines to chest pains.
He also used a mobile sonogram kit to ensure mothers — some of whom had walked many miles to reach the Polish border — that their unborn babies were healthy.
“To put the ultrasound on their abdomen and see a viable fetus kicking and moving, and they could see the images… it just felt really nice to provide that level of comfort for people,” he said.
Despite hearing gut-wrenching stories of atrocities taking place inside Ukraine —Howton said the atmosphere inside these refugee centers was generally optimistic.
He recalls children running cheerfully through the warehouse-like buildings that house refugees and playing soccer between rows of cots.
“As you can imagine, it’s really hard to get any meaningful rest.” Howton said. “You have no privacy and are there for days or weeks in these places, so it’s very difficult, but they’re just relieved to be alive. It’s kind of a mix of emotions.”
One of the nonprofits Howton worked with is a group called “Od Granicy Do Mieszkania,” which translates to “From the Border to the Flat.” The organization was started by a Polish software developer named Kuba Lang, who worked with partners to create a digital system that pairs Polish volunteers with Ukrainian refugees seeking transportation away from the border and into cities like Warsaw where they also help them find apartments to stay in.
Lang described Howton as a “star,” and said he was glad to meet the Portland doctor during his 11 days in Poland.
“The whole (Polish) nation and the whole world is helping Ukraine, and that’s absolutely amazing,” Lang said. ”To me, it’s very much offsetting all the negativity and sadness that I have experienced at the border.”
He’s especially grateful for volunteers like Howton because he’s heard dozens of first-hand accounts of what’s taking place in Ukraine.
Lang has personally made five trips to ferry refugees from the border. He said these car rides are often quiet, stoic events in which he typically has more people than what’s legally allowed riding with him.
He describes a conversation with one mother who said when air raid sirens would blare in their community, she told her children it was a game: a race to see who in their neighborhood could reach the local bomb shelter quickest.
“To me, it’s completely unimaginable,” he said.”... it’s hard to find the words, in Polish or English, to describe it.”
For Howton, his time providing aid in Poland is not over. He’s in the process of putting together more medical supplies to send to doctors he connected with in Ukraine and Poland. He’s also put in paperwork to be approved by the Polish ministry of health so that when he returns, he can practice fully.
Despite his haste to get to Poland and begin helping, he warns others against doing what he did. He encourages anyone who’s looking to help to go through the proper channels and get vetted through humanitarian organizations, so they can hit the ground running once they arrive.
Howton said one of the most important things he can do is relay the message he heard repeatedly from Ukrainian refugees: what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine is brutal and barbaric.
“Some of the older individuals who have been around longer know what the Nazis did. They say the Russian forces are even worse,” Howton said. “It’s really hard, and it still haunts me. It’s tempered by the beautiful things I saw being done in Poland by both Poles and other Europeans that have come to volunteer.”
For those interested in getting involved, Howton and Lang suggested groups seeking continued support in their mission to help Ukrainian refugees.
Team Ukraine Love is a collaboration between two Canadian nonprofits that are distributing supplies and providing aid to Ukrainian refugees crossing the border into Poland.
World of Connections is a New Jersey-based nonprofit that delivers humanitarian supplies to distressed countries across the world.