This is the fifth installment discussing my experiences working with Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Go here to see the other entries. More pictures of my particular group can be found herehereherehere, and here.

Lithuania stands with Ukraine

While people respond to recent short-term trauma differently, there are many commonalities in people’s reactions. The United States, thankfully, is not familiar with such atrocities as Ukraine faces currently. During my brief time in Poland working with Ukrainian refugees, I saw how many people were handling their stress and grief: anger, denial, and always fear.

                My second week in Krakow included working in a clothing tent distributing donated clothes. A certain amount of people were allowed in for a short amount of time to control the crowd, and more evenly hand out the clothing. Many mothers with small kids were present, along with elderly grandparents. The mothers often rummaged quickly through the options as they needed to select clothes for all of the kids as well as themselves. One mother, who had two extremely cute kids under five, went through like a whirlwind during her allotted fifteen minutes, trying to get everything that her small family needed. She was obviously stressed with the recent events of her life, and showed a short temper with her children. She found some clothes for each of them, but then returned to the tent about five minutes later as she lost her phone. Given that the clothes were in multiple boxes on crates, there were numerous places where the phone could have ended up, and it would be a long search. Needless to say, no one had seen her phone. She began screaming while repeatedly hitting her head. As she crumpled to the floor crying, she screamed something about being unable to connect with her husband, and then used the word “shot.” I didn’t understand if he had already been shot, leading to her meltdown, or if there was concern that he would be shot and she wouldn’t find out without her one communication lifeline to her home. A volunteer in the tent knelt down with her until we found her phone. She quickly left the tent with her kids, no doubt embarrassed, somewhat relieved to have her phone, but no less worried about what the future held.

                During my first week in the clinic in Warsaw, I saw a woman in her forties who had symptoms of a cold. Given the close proximity of everyone in the center, upper respiratory infections were rampant and most people either were recently or currently sick. During the visit, I asked her about all of the healing cuts on her right forearm. It looked to me like cutting with a razor that people often do to feel a physiologic release from their psychologic stress. She looked at her arm and said nonchalantly “Oh, that’s just from shrapnel.” I didn’t realize that I knew the Russian word for shrapnel, but it is the same as in English. “Is there any left?” I asked as I more closely examined her arm. “I don’t think so.” She didn’t seem concerned at all about her arm, now or then. I don’t know if it was because she had already moved on, if it was a comparatively small concern given her other traumas, or whether it was denial that anything had actually occurred.

                One of the most profound moments I had in Poland was sitting in the shelter in Warsaw, just observing the people from Ukraine. They came and went from breakfast, waited in line for the washers and dryers, or emerged clean from the showers. I saw a mother sitting with her kids at a picnic table, trying to keep the children’s attention on their food instead of running away to play. An old man sat next to me, staring at nothing in particular for a long while. I didn’t want to disturb his reverie. But what I really saw was a combination of regular people going through the motions of normal, everyday activities, and a group of broken people accepting whatever circumstances they had. Many had looks on their face that spoke of focus on survival, without immediate thought of their unusual circumstances. Others showed many proverbial wrinkles of worry, the weight of war all over their countenance and body language, like clothing they were unable to change.

                At one point in Krakow, forty or fifty pleasant Ukrainians waited in line outside of the clothing tent. A small plane flew fairly low and loudly over the area. None of the Polish people even noticed, but every person in line flinched as though it was a war plane portending danger. No matter how each individual or family handled their trauma, even if they could move on for a time, it remained. The flinching doesn’t leave that quickly.

Ukraine and Poland, inextricably linked forevermore.

War Sucks


War sucks. I don’t use such a term flippantly; it just seems to be the best way to describe it. Also remember that as a “Xennial” who came of age in the nineties, I am well aware that all things suck, including: mean people , Springfield, reality (sort of), and, well, everything (advisory for lyrics). And so I repeat: war sucks.

              Thus begins a series of posts that I will be doing on my experiences working with displaced Ukrainians from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I write this on the heels of spending two weeks in Poland working with Ukrainian refugees. It sparked a lot of emotions and deep introspection that I want to explore in writing. Those of you who know me are aware that this war has affected me deeply. I lived in Ukraine from August 2000-May 2002 as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It was an extremely difficult and tremendously meaningful experience that I cherish. Ukraine feels like my country, and Ukrainians like my people. Given the millions of refugees flooding into Europe, a majority of whom are coming through Poland, and the immense need that creates, I wanted to come help in-person. As a physician, it was an easy decision on the best way to contribute—offer medical assistance. So that’s what I’ve done.

              I wanted to ensure that I was not acting from an arrogant attitude of privilege, where I am the great American coming to fix everything and save everyone, though that temptation exists in any such humanitarian effort. I approached this more as a loving brother and concerned neighbor to help those in need. I intended to come strictly for the Ukrainian people, to meet some of their needs in any small way I could. Not only have they inspired me, but I believe that they have met my needs, as well. Serving in the very limited capacity I have is not only like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound; it’s more akin to putting a band-aid on a single gunshot wound in a field full of people with gunshot wounds. (Forgive me for the simile, given our atrocious recent gun violence in the United States.) Would the people I saw have been just as okay if I didn’t come over? Probably. Would they have been okay if no one came? No. Did my presence make an impact? I think so, as much on me as on anyone else.

              There will always be literal and figurative gunshot wounds, in the US and elsewhere. We cannot eliminate them, though we need to try as much as we can. We have to. Because everyone deserves peace, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Everyone deserves health, and safety, and the ability to follow their own religious dictates. No one deserves to be falsely accused of terrible things by a dictatorial tyrant, and then to be violently attacked based on those falsities.

              There were so many people who very graciously supported me in this cause, whether through financial donations, emotional support, watching over my family in my absence, and even a good friend from my youth who came with me on the journey. They all fill the same role I do, a team of those who care about their fellow citizens of the world and want to help in any way they can. They have all acted in humility and sincerity, and I truly thank them all. With the donations, thousands of dollars of medications and supplies that Ukrainians need have been provided.

              Please don’t misunderstand me for writing about this conflict as it pertains to me. It may seem selfish and self-serving, but I can only discuss these events from my own experience. I’ll include many stories shared with me from displaced Ukrainians. Hopefully, we can all learn together from them.

But the only reason that I went to Poland was because war sucks. Putin is simply evil, there is no other way to put it. Thousands have been killed needlessly, millions have been displaced needlessly, but millions have also responded with kindness, needfully. If Putin hadn’t invaded, I and thousands of others would not have gone to Poland to assist refugees, nor millions others donated to these efforts. Good always trumps evil…eventually.

Everyone, grab your band-aids. Let’s do what we can.

Mental Illness and Loved Ones

One of the toughest things about mental illness is how it affects one’s close relationships, with both families and friends. Nothing about is easy, either for the person with the mental illness, or the loved one that is trying to help and connect. It is exhausting and seems fruitless at times. But stick with it. There is always hope.

Listen to my wife Becki and I talk about how it has impacted us on the About Progress podcast in 2017. I hope it is at least somewhat helpful.