Wright Center resident physician travels abroad to aid Ukrainian refugees
Dr. Chaitanya Rojulpote, an internal medicine resident at The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education, provided treatment to Nina, an 86-year-old grandmother, who was on the verge of collapse when she arrived at the refugee camp in Medyka, Poland.
Solo trip to Polish border town allows Dr. Rojulpote to deliver hands-on care and dose of hope
Bothered by daily reports of more bombing and bloodshed in Ukraine, 29-year-old resident physician Dr. Chaitanya Rojulpote of Scranton did more than simply feel sorrow for the people caught in the war’s path.
He did what his heart demanded.
He bought a plane ticket and made a solo trip to Europe, devoting one week of his vacation time to helping refugees displaced by the brutal Russian invasion.
Rojulpote, a second-year internal medicine resident at The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education in Northeast Pennsylvania, teamed with a non-governmental medical relief organization that is dedicated to helping people in distress.
He worked in its first aid field unit, tending to individuals as they fled danger and finally crossed the border from chaotic Ukraine into the relative safety of Poland. The refugees typically arrive there in waves, he says. They cross by foot through the guarded gate at all hours of the day and night. They are hungry, cold, frightened, sometimes dehydrated, usually exhausted and always uncertain. Most are women and children.
“What you’re giving these people more than anything else – more than medical help, more than food, more than water – is hope,” says Rojulpote. “You’re giving them hope that, after finally reaching this destination, it’s going to get better.”
More than 12 million Ukrainians have left their homes since Russian troops invaded the nation on Feb. 24, creating what is considered one of the fastest-growing displacement and humanitarian crises in history. An estimated 6.5 million people had been uprooted but remained within the country as of early May. More than 5.7 million Ukrainians had escaped to neighboring nations, with Poland receiving the largest influx: 3.1 million individuals – and counting, according to United Nations’ estimates.
News of the situation – combined with horrific images of civilians killed and injured – is compelling millions of people around the globe to feel a personal responsibility for the victims, as reflected in the ongoing outpouring of financial donations and material goods. Only a fraction of observers, however, will go to the scene as Rojulpote did in mid-April, and those who consider making the trip are respectfully asked to follow through only if they have the needed skills.
Rojulpote knew that health care workers were in high demand by aid agencies at the Ukrainian border. Before joining the effort, however, he brushed up on techniques he hadn’t used since his days in medical school in India, including how to close wounds. He visited the emergency department of Commonwealth Health Regional Hospital of Scranton, where two physicians graciously gave him refreshers on properly placing an intravenous line and on suturing. (He practiced by putting stitches in a Styrofoam cup.) He also watched YouTube videos about applying simple field dressings.
Rojulpote’s skills would be tested during his brief stint at the border. He practiced on-the-fly medicine, offering the best care he could in the limited time that patients would stay. Most of the travelers were in a hurry to move on within hours, even minutes. In one case, he could only plead with, and then dispense blood pressure-lowering medication, to a man whose reading was dangerously high. The man took the pills but immediately continued on his journey, to connect with his waiting wife, when he rightly should have gone straight to a hospital.
Several of the refugees whom Rojulpote encountered only briefly will remain with him in spirit for the rest of his life. He was summoned one night, for instance, to treat Nina, an 86-year-old grandmother who had traveled for two days straight before entering the camp; she was on the verge of collapse. From her, the young physician learned the power of resilience.
Similarly, a man known as Sasha, who each day waits and waits at the border gate, greeting every arriving traveler and hoping to get news about his missing family, demonstrates the enduring power of love – and kindness.
Rojulpote decided to publicly share these and other stories of his experiences in Medyka, Poland – where he volunteered inside a woodstove-heated tent that serves around the clock as both a sort of urgent care clinic and a healer of souls – as a way of motivating others to lend aid when hearing about the Ukrainians’ plight or any other calamity.
“I want people to ask themselves what they can do to help,” he says. “And then the next question is, ‘OK, how do I go about doing that?’ Not everyone can get on a plane and go, but, whatever gesture – whether it’s donating or volunteering locally to fundraise for a cause – is going to help.
“If you have the intention to do good,” he adds, “I think you should just act on it.”
The physician is quick to point out his journey was supported by many others, including members of his Wright Center family. Three fellow resident physicians – Drs. Kashyap Kela, Princy Shaw and Richard Bronnenkant – adjusted their plans to provide clinical coverage in his absence. “They couldn’t come with me,” he says, “but they helped me to make the trip.”
Dr. Douglas Klamp, associate program director of The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education’s Internal Medicine Residency, initially thought the younger physician’s planned international mission might get derailed for any number of practical reasons. Yet Klamp eagerly chipped in medical supplies, including surgical instruments and orthopedic support devices, then marveled as the plan was executed.
“Chaitanya stuck with the idea and made it happen,” says Klamp. “It was an extraordinary and meaningful act that elevated all of us, especially when he returned and shared his experience with us during a presentation at our teaching conference.”
Rojulpote acknowledges that the same impulses that led him to Ukraine probably brought him to The Wright Center, where an emphasis is placed on delivering health care to the underserved and “helping those most in need.” “I think I was drawn to this place at some level because of its mission to serve,” says Rojulpote. “With all the noise and prestige that can come from going to bigger institutions, you can lose sight of why you chose a career in medicine.”
Altruism runs in family
Rojulpote was born in India but spent most of his school-age years in the United States. The oldest of three children, he was raised primarily in the King of Prussia area.
His mother teaches classical Indian dance, often donating proceeds from the classes to support children and various causes in India. His father, a software architect, has an altruistic streak that sometimes surprises even the family; he donated a kidney to a stranger, then politely declined to meet with the recipient after the successful surgery. The gift, it seemed, was more important than any accolade.
From Rojulpote’s vantage point in Scranton earlier this year, he assumed the conflict in Ukraine would be short-lived. After all, who would believe conventional warfare could rage in Europe in the 21st century? And who would think in this day and age that people on the continent, and across the globe, could face a nuclear nightmare? To him, it all seemed unimaginable.
Yet the truth of the unfolding tragedy seemed to worsen with each breaking news story. Europe is coping with its largest refugee crisis in more than half a century. Russian shelling and fighting have reportedly damaged more than 40 hospitals and clinics in Ukraine, including rehabilitation homes, maternity hospitals and children’s hospitals.
Rojulpote first told a trusted friend of his intent to volunteer overseas. “There was silence on the phone, and finally he asked me why,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t have a valid reason for you, I just feel like I have to go.’”
Then he told his father, whose response was swifter and more direct. “Yes, do it,” the man encouraged.
A day before Rojulpote’s scheduled departure, however, he grew apprehensive. Should I even be doing this, he wondered. Then, as he passed a memorial plaque in the halls of Regional Hospital of Scranton, he noticed its inscription included the lines of a poem – a poem to which he had first been introduced in the eighth grade.
“I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being let me do it now.“
He boarded a plane in Philadelphia. A sign hanging in one airport concourse read, “United We Stand with Ukraine.” Two flights, three car rides and a frustrating number of vehicle roundabouts later, Rojulpote made it to Medyka, in southeastern Poland.
Camp offers meals, mercy
Dr. Chaitanya Rojulpote of Scranton, a second-year internal medicine resident at The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education, teamed with the non-governmental medical relief organization, Rescuers Without Borders, to help people in distress.
For six consecutive days beginning on April 18, he worked among kindred souls, including a mix of aid workers and volunteers, tending to frightened families as they entered the soccer field-sized refugee camp.
The newcomers’ immediate needs for food and medical care are met by agencies such as UNICEF, Humanity First and World Central Kitchen, each occupying a different tent on the camp’s sprawling grounds. T-Mobile supplies SIM cards to allow individuals to connect with loved ones; another organization dishes out free pizza, and yet another deals with animal rescue.
Collectively, the humanitarian-aid teams supply the same commodities that Russia’s president seemingly has stripped from the landscape: goodness and mercy.
“Every volunteer and aid worker came to the camp with the intention of helping out these people,” says Rojulpote. “Whatever you had, you gave away. There was nothing to sell, only to give away.”
Even so, constant threats persist. Human traffickers ply their ugly trade around refugee camps, taking advantage of young children and others separated from their families. (Nearly two-thirds of all Ukrainian children have been forced from their homes, including those still inside the country, according to published reports.)
Rojulpote had signed up to serve in a medical tent operated by Sauveteurs Sans Frontieres, known as “SSF” or Rescuers Without Borders. Its team there has treated thousands of people, mainly women, teens and young children. The medical tent contains a few plastic lawn chairs, often arranged near the wood stove, and a single bed. Plastic shelves are stacked with clear bins containing exam gloves, saline bags and medications organized by malady: antidiarrheal, antipsychotic, antidiabetic, antiviral, antifungal and antihypertensive. A defibrillator kit rests within reach.
From his post, Rojulpote, who was often dressed in five layers of clothing to stay warm, treated arriving refugees for hypothermia, dehydration, chronic conditions and a range of non-specific symptoms such as headaches, fever and fatigue.
“When I went to med school I was 18,” he says. “And if you had told 18-year-old me that one day I would be the only night physician in a refugee camp providing medical aid in a humanitarian crisis, I wouldn’t have believed it. My younger self would have been proud.”
‘A golden heart’
He recalls one night at camp, watching as a family of five approached the border gate. The husband and wife, each holding a hand of the youngest toddler, were visibly anxious. The two older children, however, scampered ahead, giggling and jumping, as if playing a game of hopscotch.
“Children don’t know their lives have changed drastically,” says Rojulpote. “The parents are often just trying to hold it together. And it’s heartbreaking, because the life that they’ve known no longer exists.”
Amid this bleak reality, a single person’s kind or compassionate act can seem like a brilliant light.
For Rojulpote, that fact was best exemplified during his stay in Poland by Sasha – the man who greets people at the border gate. Draped in a Ukrainian flag, Sasha stands a few yards from the gate every day from 8 a.m. until late evening. As incoming refugees pass through, he offers to carry their luggage, tells them in their own language what the camp has to offer and directs them to the appropriate tent for the services they need. He has vowed to continue his self-appointed duties until the war ends.
“We need more Sashas in the world,” says Rojulpote. “For someone who isn’t even sure his family is alive, who pretty much has had everything taken from him, yet who finds the inner strength to continue to do something good to help others, I mean, he has a golden heart.”
Dr. Chaitanya Rojulpote of Scranton, a second-year internal medicine resident at The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education, poses with Sasha, a Ukrainian refugee who greets people at the border gate between Medyka, Poland and Ukraine.
Now safely back to work treating patients at The Wright Center, Rojulpote urges that if your heart beckons you to do something for Ukraine’s citizens, or others in need, listen to it and act today.
Learn more about The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education, and its residency and fellowship programs that emphasize service to vulnerable populations, by visiting TheWrightCenter.org.