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Even During Wartime, His Heart Belongs to Ukraine

Stirred by his heritage, cardiology fellow, Dr. Alex Hajduczok, traveled to Poland to provide medical aid to Ukrainian refugees crossing the border.

The Ukrainian flag that Dr. Alex Hajduczok brought back from his medical sojourn to the Ukrainian Polish border has a message inscribed across its now familiar blue and gold.

Written in Ukrainian, the message translates to “everything will be Ukraine,” which, Dr. Hajduczok says, really means “everything will work out and be OK in the end.”

“I can only pray for that,” Dr. Hajduczok says, glancing at the flag that now hangs in the Jefferson cardiology fellows room. “My feeling is that this should give the world hope – hope that there is so much good in the world and that with time, that good will prevail.”

For Dr. Hajduczok, a first-year cardiology fellow at Jefferson, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and resulting war hit particularly hard. His Ukrainian grandparents were liberated from German camps in World War II. He carries the Ukrainian heritage, cultural ties and work ethic typical of all Ukrainian-Americans – traits handed down from their parents and their parents before them, many of whom endured years of oppression, sorrow and struggle in Ukraine – often driven by constant conflicts with Russia and the former Soviet Union.

It was no surprise then, to his family, friends and Jefferson colleagues, when he traveled to Medyka, a village in southeastern Poland on the main border with Ukraine, where thousands of Ukrainian refugees have been crossing the border every day since the war began on February 24.

I just felt that I couldn’t watch on the sidelines anymore. I needed to go over there and I needed to help. – Dr. Hajduczok

He volunteered with SSF-Rescuers Without Borders, an international network that regularly intervenes throughout the world after natural disasters or in war zones, providing shelter, water, food, clothing and blankets to disaster victims.

He left Philadelphia for Poland on March 20, arriving at the airport in Krakow, about a three-hour drive from his destination in Medyka. He got to work almost immediately. While still in Krakow, he met a group of people from Washington, D.C. who had brought humanitarian supplies for the front. He rented a car and agreed to take what he could to Medyka. “I got one of the last cars they had to rent and it turned out to be a stick shift, which I hadn’t driven in at least 10 years. So that was an interesting start.”

After consulting a YouTube video on driving a stick, Dr. Hajduczok set out for the border, arriving in Medyka to a world turned upside down by war. He began his tour working nights in the main medical tent, just steps away from the border, where Ukrainian refugees – hungry and exhausted from days of traveling in frigid temperatures – were crossing all day and night.

Dr. Alex Hajduczok with a group of volunteers at the refugee camp
Dr. Alex Hajduczok and a group of volunteers at the center for refugees in Medyka, Poland.

As many as 8,000-10,000 people per day were crossing into Medyka, Dr. Hajduczok says, with 12,000 being reported as a one-day record. Such volume created long lines at the border, with some waiting as long as 12 hours before entering Poland. More than four million Ukrainians – almost all women and children – have fled Ukraine since the invasion began. The sudden exodus of Ukrainian refugees is at a scale not seen in Europe since World War II.

“It’s was just heartbreaking, some of them will never go back to their homes,” Dr. Hajduczok says. “You can see reports in the media, but I don’t think that it really hits home until you talk with some of these people and they’re asking you, ‘what do I do?’ I don’t have an answer for them.”

“These people’s lives are changed forever and the ripple effect is going to go on for generations.”

Working in a large, military tent with a team of doctors, nurses and volunteers from across Europe and the U.S., Dr. Hajduczok treated hundreds of people for dehydration and hypothermia. But as the Russian assault on urban areas such as Mariupol, Kharkiv and Kyiv mounted, more and more required treatment for gunshot wounds or cuts from broken glass sustained in mortar attacks.

It was unlike anything he had experienced in his career as a physician.

“Anything could walk through the tent at any time,” he says. “People needing stitches for a variety of reasons, including gunshot wounds, a girl who had a cut above her eye from glass that shattered from a bomb that went off, travels for five days and it gets infected. Another person got shot in the chest, but had a bulletproof vest on, but we needed to assess the severity of the fractured ribs, to rule out the bad things like pneumothorax. So often, it was about figuring out what you can do, what you have to offer to set them up for the next step. We even did some bedside ultrasounds and used the Kardia Mobile 6-lead ECG to look for arrhythmias or any other concerning changes in people with chest pain.”

Being the only physician that also spoke Ukrainian proved invaluable. “There weren’t that many Ukrainian speakers in general, aside from the refugees. So anytime that I wasn’t really working, I was just around translating.”

Dr. Alex Hajduczok with a Ukrainian refugee

Dr. Alex Hajduczok with a Ukrainian refugee at the center.

In a strange but somewhat comforting twist, the very tent that he worked within provided a connection to his own Ukrainian-American upbringing in Buffalo, NY. “It was almost nostalgic when I showed up at the main medical tent and it was the exact, standard-issue Army tent that I would sleep in every summer for three to four weeks at these Ukrainian camps I grew up in,” Dr. Hajduczok says.

At “Ukrainian camps,” – think Boy Scouts, Dr. Hajduczok says – he would participate in marching exercises, morning and evening flag ceremonies with both the American and Ukrainian flags, sing songs, recite poems and build bonfires for the end of the week “zabava,” or party. The older boys and girls would also take turns on “night watch,” taking two-hour shifts in the darkest hours of the night and early morning. Dr. Hajduczok is convinced that this is where he learned to function well, both mentally and physically, despite being sleep deprived – a trait that has served him well during residency and fellowship, he says.

Photograph of a mural located at a Ukrainian refugee center in Medyka, Poland that calls to stop the war in Ukraine
Mural painted at the border in Medyka, Poland.

There were frequent trips across the border into Ukraine, to deliver blankets, food, water, chai tea, hot chocolate or coffee to those waiting in the cold to cross the border. “Sometimes it was just a matter of providing sympathy, or giving someone a big hug and handing them some warm food and a blanket,” Dr. Hajduczok says. “The hot chocolate was by far the biggest hit. The kids loved it.”

Time and again, he found himself awed by the bravery and resilience on display from the Ukrainian people. At first, many would refuse the most basic offerings of food or water – their deep sense of pride too strong to allow it.

“That’s kind of like what I grew up with and hearing the stories from my grandparents, who were also refugees,” Dr. Hajduczok says. He recalls his grandmother describing years of eating scraps to survive the Holodomor, or the Great Famine, which killed millions of Ukrainians in Soviet Ukraine from 1932-1933. Had they decided to remain in Ukraine instead of immigrating to the United States, things could have been much different for Dr. Hajduczok. “That’s another reason this all really hit home for me, because that could easily have been me. It’s really just luck of the draw that I was born in the United States rather than being born in Ukraine.”

Dr. Hajduczok with a group of college women who volunteered as translators at the refugee center
Dr. Hajduczok with a group of Ukrainian college students who volunteered as translators at the refugee center.

While he was at the border for just nine days, the experience, he believes, will resonate for a lifetime, both personally and professionally. Despite being surrounded by such dire circumstances, he remains hopeful for Ukraine. His spirits are buoyed by the people he met and the good they did.

Like Dr. Jeffrey Horenstein, the emergency medicine physician from Boston he worked closely with and who taught him some “tricks of the emergency department world.” Or the group of college girls who would cross the border every day to volunteer from nine in the morning until nine at night, then cross back to Ukraine to sleep on the floor of the train station, only to get back up and do it again.

In these really dark times, those are the beacons of hope. – Dr. Hajduczok

Being back home is bittersweet, he says, because he would like to do more to help. “I think that, deep down, you keep a little piece of these experiences and you try to direct that sentiment for the better. Seeing the resilience of some of these people is really inspiring. I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.”

Editor’s Note:

Dr. Alex Hajduczok also shared some of his personal recommendations on organizations that have been successful in addressing the many needs of Ukrainian refugees. They include:

Production support for this feature and podcast by Dan Bernstein, Barbara Henderson, Jessica Lopez, and Carly Williams.

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