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“When faced with senseless violence in a distant, war-torn place, our actions help our colleagues on the medical front lines.”
Tinkerbell’s Last Ride: Friday, April 1
Two large Catholic parishes in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, decided to do something for Ukraine, touched by the suffering of individuals who share a common ancestry to many in this region. We explored contacts within our Catholic clergy and discovered Ukrainian nuns posted in Przemyśl, Poland, who were sending aid across the border. They shared a wish list of medical and surgical supplies that could not be obtained in parts of Ukraine. We assembled a network of volunteers from the United States and Europe for this “drop and go” mission designed for those who cannot miss their Monday-through-Friday job duties.
I decided to mobilize psychiatrists who could obtain the needed supplies, and my call to the American Association of Community Psychiatrists (AACP) yielded immediate support. Ana Turner, MD, and Kitty Leung, MD, from the University of Florida helped me collect 7 large, 50-pound packages full of pharma, foleys, chest seals, wound-clotting bandages, pediatric endotracheal tubes, syringes and needles, dissolvable sutures, and so much more.
Organizing the day before, I search for Tinkerbell, a commodious suitcase sporting a subtle Disney logo, for one last ride. Tink had faithfully served her missions with the nonprofit, Brighton First, where I volunteer. Our teenage travel novices chucked her out of a trans-Siberian train car onto the nearby tracks during a chaotic unloading, while tardy trip members banged and bounced a fully engorged Tink as we raced to busses in Peru. Once I callously left her in peril in Swansea, Wales, causing her to collide with a bicyclist.
Tink had lost much of her charm over the 20 years she commanded our suitcase army. Covered with internal and external duct tape repairs, she must be dragged by her buttocks due to her missing top handle and single wheel. After a January 2022 adventure at the Haiti border, members of our team commented that Tinkerbell had been hospital material, but now she was on life support; I should pull the plug.
I just could not.
I wondered why I provided a stay of execution and stashed her in my garage. Much like the people struggling in Ukraine, Tinkerbell represented the best in humans, their struggles, their coping skills, and most importantly, their resilience. Throwing Tinkerbell in a dumpster seemed both heartless and irreverent.
Preparing for the journey, my decision became clear. I planned to leave Tinkerbell in Ukraine. My fantasy entailed her accompanying the doctors who sleep at the Polish convent as they journey daily to work in Ukraine. Like the mythical phoenix, Tinkerbell may rise again for future service, overcoming her many adversities and finding quality in her later life by experiencing empowering adventures while helping others. I identified with Tinkerbell and could relate to her struggles. Her base rest bar had partially ripped off, so I finished the amputation and covered that hole, along with a large dorsal rip above her front pocket, with packing tape. Tink was good to go.
Transportation Troubles and Rental Car Sleight of Hand: Saturday, April 2
In Krakow, we rendezvoused with another volunteer, Jenn, lugging 10 large containers of first aid supplies. She informed us that another volunteer, Luis, who had planned to stay and do construction, was stuck in Warsaw. Then she acknowledged a larger setback involving Jenn’s sister and brother-in-law who were driving from Nantes, France, with a flat carrier hauling IV Fluids and other heavy supplies not suitable for airlines. The car’s transmission breathed its last just as they arrived in Przemyśl. Jenn was now stranded without transport for her bags, and we lost our guide to the convent.
As my female elders always said, “Desperate times require desperate deeds.”
My rental car salesman absorbed my tale of woe as I asked to change to a humongous van. He had no larger options than the Volvo SUV and opinioned that no one else would either. Europeans do not like that kind of ride. As customers behind me started backing up, he requested that I move aside.
Successful psychiatric interventions involve reading people. Now I needed all my clinical skills to manage this crisis. Following a rental car or ticketing agent’s request to go to a help desk or step aside so they can help others beams you into a travel Twilight Zone described by one mentor as “where time ceases to exist and all hope dies.” Your leverage to have these public servants solve your dilemma is the sheer frustration you present as an obstruction to other commerce.
I politely stood my ground.
We verbally grappled back-and-forth, but he blinked first. Leaning over conspiratorially, he quietly intoned, “here is your solution, but you did not learn this from me. Your friend has no international driver’s license, but you have a large credit limit on your Visa card, right? So, you rent 2 cars as the primary driver and put her as a second driver on the smaller, less expensive car with full, no-questions-asked insurance coverage and a $2000 cash deposit. I will ‘accidentally’ leave her international driver’s license section blank.” Jenn and I took care of business.
With Kitty restraining all the containers in back and Ana acting as a sherpa with my outdated international Garman, we caravanned to Przemyśl, where we were greeted by the nuns who offered a wonderful meal of potato soup, squash stew, kolaches, and strong Polish coffee.
Despite our transportation delays, we delivered all the supplies but missed the opportunity to visit the “Romanian Café.” This tongue-in-cheek term described a 10-by-10 canopy tent just over the border in Ukraine that is managed by a selfless Romanian woman who prepares free takeout kielbasas for everyone traveling from Lviv. Showing both altruism and bravery, this single lady reaffirms to weary travelers that people are inherently good and want to help each other. We plan to see the café on our next trip in May 2022.
Reflections on a Quick Turn-Around Service Model: Sunday, April 3
This strategy presents a way to make a small yet significant difference in Ukraine. We 3 AACP psychiatrists may be the bag handlers, but this mission was made possible with the support of many physicians who remained at home.
When faced with senseless violence in a distant, war-torn place, our actions help our colleagues on the medical frontlines and involve items hospitals cannot find even if they have monetary donations. Maybe others could try this model and use our psychiatric skills by finagling donations from reluctant hospital systems or cajoling overworked rental car agents. Many readers may discover medical or religious contacts in Ukraine, as we did, who could benefit from our help.
As I left the convent to return to my life in the United States, I spied Tink in the entrance hall packed for the next day amidst all the pallets of donated supplies. She was still standing guard and waiting for her next adventure.
Dr Vogel-Scibilia practices psychiatry in 2 rural counties in Western Pennsylvania.