by Alina Zhurbenko and Sofiia Tiapkina

Lisa Prytula, a registered nurse, works at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in Florida. With 30 years of healthcare experience, a Master’s degree in Transcultural Nursing, and expertise in continuous improvement processes, Lisa has oversight of the hospital’s regulatory affairs. She recently returned from Poland, where she volunteered with multinational medical teams to aid Ukrainian refugees. The presentation focused on her medical relief work to improve the health and quality of life of Ukrainians who have escaped the war. She described the most common, acute, and chronic medical conditions which they suffer and provided recommendations for how we together can sustain humanitarian relief and medical support.

“This is the best job I ever had,” she remarks, arranging Zoom windows. Meticulous attention to detail and care for her patients transpire through everything Lisa Prytula does: from comfortably readable slides of her presentation to an introductory disclaimer. All views expressed are hers and hers alone. The names and locations are changed and not disclosed for safety, and in reflecting on her experience, Lisa Prytula does not represent any organization, its employees, or its affiliates.

Lisa Prytula 2 | UNWLA - Ukrainian National Womens League of America

The Why

Like many other people, when Russia invaded Ukraine on the morning of February 24, Lisa felt angry, sad, and helpless. But she pretty quickly harnessed those emotions and plunged into the work of helping people. “The best way I know how to help is through nursing. The very heart of nursing is helping people when they are at their weakest,” she says. A trip to Poland would not be the first time she has engaged in a humanitarian mission – she has conducted several medical mission trips in marginalized villages and orphanages throughout Ukraine. During her most recent trip, Prytula volunteered most of her time in a massive refugee transit center in southern Poland.

The Center

Anyone would imagine a space with the capacity to host more than 10000 people to be bustling and loud. At the time Lisa Prytula was there, more than 7,000 guests had found their refuge there – so shocked and withdrawn that the center wasn’t noisy. “It was not like I would expect or have ever seen in the US, for sure. And that will always resonate and sit with me,” Lisa Prytula adds as she moves to describe the conditions and amenities Ukrainian refugees had there.

The Polish government organized and ran the center with astounding complexity and scale of operations. Hundreds of multinational volunteers joined in, and in her years of medical experience and volunteering, Lisa admits to never seeing anything like this. Canadian immigration authority processed authorizations for temporary and permanent residents on site. World Central Kitchen operationalized meals – volunteers offered three hot meals a day cafeteria-style for guests and staff. Three healthy meals a day could make all the difference in even the most stressful of times. Food trucks (a big hit with the teenagers) and an abundance of grab-and-go bags so families could take with them further on their journey – there was no scarcity of food or clothing. Clothing, shoes, diapers, and toys piled up in a designated area of the center, about the size of half a football field.

The center also provided lots of organized spaces for children’s activities. Play areas and classrooms were open for children of different ages. Teenagers could just hang out at the Teen Center, play music and computer games, dance and play ball or do yoga. There were also plenty of reading spaces, arts and crafts, and places for kids to continue their studies online.

Guests, Not Refugees

Everybody in Poland, from hotel receptionists and Uber drivers to Polish President Adjei Duda, refers to Ukrainian refugees as “guests.” Indeed, the support of the Polish government and the people has been overwhelming and immeasurable when it came to aiding war-struck Ukraine. Not everyone left right away when the Russian invasion started: some didn’t have the means to travel, and some were hoping the storm would pass by quickly. So many of the patients coming through the border and needing medical aid had severe or chronic conditions. Some of them were very sick but had to travel to Poland anyway because their family couldn’t leave them behind. Many of them were from areas that were already Russian-occupied or hit very heavily, so it took them a while to get through a long and dangerous trip to the safety of Poland.

The healthcare center, where Lisa had volunteered, serves patients of all ages – from two-month-old babies to people over 90 who had no choice but to leave home behind. Women and children were the majority since men between 18 and 60 are not permitted to leave Ukraine due to martial law. For people with limited mobility, daily life, even in peacetime, may become a struggle. It becomes unbearable in war with food scarcity, cut-off utilities, limited medicine supply, and constant need to run down to a bomb shelter. So many individuals in the Polish center for Ukrainian refugees used wheelchairs and needed extra care and support.

Not only humans needed attention: pets lived at the center as well. Dog and cat families wouldn’t leave their little furry friends behind. A vet clinic there provided necessary care for pets after their long trip to Poland, some of which were sick and injured. Lisa Prytula spoke to one of the veterinarians, who admitted that he had never treated so many urinary tract infections: dehydrated, pets had to hold their bladder on their journey. For the recovering and healthy furry companions, the refugee center provided food, litter boxes, leashes, and carriers so families could keep their pets secure.

cats LP | UNWLA - Ukrainian National Womens League of America

The Clinic

The standards of medical care in the center’s clinic were set very high and matched those in the US. Staffed by Polish, Canadian, and American clinicians and volunteers, including International Medical Relief (IMR) teams, the clinic operated 24/7 and provided all kinds of medical care. The Polish government and Polish licensed independent practitioners provided oversight.

IMR is an international non-profit, non-government organization based in Colorado. It provides free health and dental care around the world. Volunteers carried out missions in 78 countries and provided disaster relief like the one in Poland in 19.

“They are not trying to reinvent the wheel, ” says Lisa Prytula when describing the operations of the International Medical Relief in Poland. “They come in and serve under the direction of existing healthcare systems. They develop partnerships and training opportunities in many countries and work on water and sanitation development.” Lisa’s team of volunteers included professionals of all ages across the US. “It was a real pleasure and honored to get to know these very giving volunteers,” Prytula concludes.

She was the only Ukrainian speaker on her team. Some people would help translate for other doctors. Most of the volunteer translators were Ukrainian refugees themselves. Nurse practitioners, physician assistants, medics, nurses, dentists, oral surgeons, and other medical professionals worked long, 12-hour shifts. Some people would work the night shift. Everybody worked hard to serve the never-ending line of individuals who would come for medical and dental care. The Polish EMS was on standby to transport acutely sick people to the hospitals, which happened several times a day. Other patients would get in line to get treated. Volunteers would triage and get basic information about patients with the help of an interpreter. Then a nurse would collect their vital signs and any additional tests. Afterward, patients would see a licensed independent practitioner: a doctor, a nurse practitioner, or a physician’s assistant. They would quickly assess and determine what was needed for that individual at that time. Patients would receive their medications or treatment on-site. The Polish government grants and donations from non-profit organizations such as UNWLA kept the pharmacy well-stocked with medications, vaccines, and IV fluids. The need, however, matched the supply.

Health Education

Health education, an integral part of mission work, is crucial to international medical relief. It is a core element of helping Ukrainians so that they can help themselves. Even in a very stressful and challenging situation, the goal was to empower individuals to take their health into their own hands.

Volunteers, including Lisa Prytula, spent a lot of time on infection prevention in the massive transit center. Proper hand hygiene mattered more than ever. Everyone had hand hygiene gel to try to decrease the transmission of respiratory illnesses. Medication compliance was another vital part of health education: the importance of completing your antibiotic course, not sharing antibiotics, and returning to the clinic if symptoms were not improving. 

Besides, when leaving the clinic, Ukrainians were at risk of human trafficking, which includes sex trafficking, prostitution, labor bondage, and forced labor such as farming or working as a nanny. Volunteers also talked about that, ensuring their patients are educated not just about their health but also about potential risks to their life and safety abroad.

patients | UNWLA - Ukrainian National Womens League of America

The Portraits

As a Ukrainian, Lisa Prytula forged a special bond with her patients. Sharing their stories (all names are changed for confidentiality,) she outlined the most common conditions her team had treated.


This 17-year-old young man arrived at the center all alone. His parents remained in Ukraine. When a missile their apartment, Artem escaped. Lisa was struck by how thin he was, and Artem was also diagnosed with pneumonia. Artem planned to stay in the transit center until he turned 18 and then go to the Netherlands.

Natalia, Oksana (10), and Dmytro (5)

Natalia, a young mother, was on the verge of mental collapse, doing everything she could to remain strong for her children. Her husband stayed in Ukraine to fight. They escaped a village that had recently become Russian-occupied. Oksana and Dmytro were lethargic and very sick with fever and gastrointestinal disease. With medical help, they started feeling better. Natalia put her name on the list for a bus to Estonia, where her friends from the village had already found shelter.


A young man in his twenties, Ivan had a known history of schizophrenia. When his village was attacked, and he escaped, Ivan separated from his family. Although he had a list of necessary medications, he had none of them. Lisa was so glad to restart his treatment and, with the help of Polish authorities, she even found a smaller home placement where Ivan could be supervised. An image seared into Lisa’s memory was that of her American colleague patiently listening to Ivan’s recollections for hours.


The retired school teacher had hypertension and a bad case of pneumonia. She escaped when her apartment building got struck by Russian missiles, and her sister died. Katya had been at the transit center for almost two months and had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. “I just want to go home,” she replied when asked about her plans. Katya received treatment for her hypertension and pneumonia. Lisa visited the elderly teacher every day. One incident especially pulled at her heartstrings. Katya’s glasses were broken; she somehow taped one of the shattered lenses together. When they got her new glasses, Katya cried at being able to see again.

Petro, Olena, and baby Marko

The young couple had a baby just two days before Russia invaded Ukraine. They initially escaped to western Ukraine, then moved to the transit center. As Petro was a citizen of another country, the family managed to stay together. Olena suffered from severe post-traumatic stress, but Petro supported her with all his power, wrapping his arms around her as she was breastfeeding Marko. Within hours of their arrival at the center, Marriott offered them a free hotel room with meals included to protect the baby from infectious diseases in the center. Their photos in the hotel room were the first time Lisa saw them smile. Olena received treatment for her depression and postnatal stress, and the family connected with Polish healthcare for ongoing care. 

Lyudmyla, Ivanka, and Andriyko

Lyudmyla is a middle-aged nurse who arrived at the transit center with her adult daughter Ivanka and her infant grandchild Andriyko. Russians attacked their city with missiles, but the family remained there for a long time. Lyudmyla felt that the hospital she worked in needed her. Then the hospital got bombed and destroyed; people died. “I realized I needed to save my daughter and grandson,” she said. The women escaped, and Lyudmyla’s husband and son-in-law stayed to fight in Ukraine. She hadn’t heard from her husband for quite some time.


Lisa spent a week at the Polish center, which housed the Boyarka Kyiv Regional Orphanage. One of the volunteers at the center was Lesya, a former member of the orphanage staff in Kyiv. Lesya had to take care of three babies: two twins, and another baby, all less than six months of age. She had no backup and was responsible for them 24/7. All the while, her adolescent children remained with Lesya’s parents in Ukraine, and her husband was also there, fighting Russians. Lesya was desperate to go home to her family, but she couldn’t leave the babies alone. Lisa Prytula took care of the babies for Lesya so she could rest, shower, and call her family in Ukraine.

The team of caregivers is extremely understaffed and provides 247 care for the children | UNWLA - Ukrainian National Womens League of America

Best Donations

Lisa Prytula wraps up her lecture with words of admiration for the Polish welcome of Ukrainians and Ukrainian bravery, determination, grace, and gratitude. As an experienced medical professional, she admits to operations’ unprecedented scale and complexity in aiding Ukrainian refugees. “It was some of the hardest emotionally and even physically works I’ve ever done. But I can’t wait to do it again.”

The joint effort, both on the governmental and individual levels, continues to help Ukrainian refugees. Donating money is the fastest and most flexible way to support this effort. Lisa Prytula concluded her presentation with gratitude to her healthcare colleagues, friends, and family, many others who generously donated over $20,000. These funds helped purchase medications, medical, and other much-needed supplies for the Ukrainian community in Poland. Prytula recommends raising funds for other necessities. “I saw many examples of unsolicited medications and supplies that were expired or weren’t useful, like an entire crate of extra large latex gloves. It really just clogs the supply chain. Ukraine and the EU have advanced healthcare systems. And they have very rigorous standards, just like we do in the US. So to best support humanitarian aid and relief, let’s not send unsolicited supplies and think about how we can raise more money.”

We sincerely thank Lisa Prytula for generously sharing her time and knowledge with us. An abridged version of this material appeared in the July/August issue of Our Life.

Sofiia Tiapkina is a rising junior at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Massachusetts. She contributed to this article during her summer internship at the UNWLA. Sofiia is a passionate writer whose work has been published in the Voices of Ukraine: Impressions Around War anthology. Her family remains in her hometown Kryvyi Rih in southeastern Ukraine.