Updated: Sep 2, 2021
I’m back in Greece with Medical Volunteers International after deciding the global health fellowship wasn’t the right fit for me (different long story for another day), and what a time to be here. We are seeing many people who have walked days, sometimes weeks, in order to cross the border into the EU and attempt to seek some sort of asylum or refugee status. Some are just here for a short time and plan to continue on their journey within just a few days.
MVI houses its volunteers in a few flats nearby, where we quickly turn into family welcoming new people every few weeks. Most meals are together with the majority of food from a bustling weekly market just out the front door, and there is a perpetual load of scrubs hanging out to dry.
What we treat...and what we can't
Many refugees arrive at this stopping point malnourished, and almost all have wounds from macerated skin on their feet (few have socks) to infected bug bites to knife wounds. Some have been raped. A handful have had rough encounters with police. A 15 year-old boy, just a year younger than my nephew (who is doing well in school and lacrosse and just started driving on his own), travelled alone and lost consciousness literally at the doorstep of our clinic in Thessaloniki. He had travelled for about 16 days alone, now underweight and suffering from malnourishment, dehydration, infected wounds, and surely a mental health crisis that we cannot come close to addressing in our capacity.
MVI initially set up shop in Greece to help with the refugee crisis of people fleeing Syria and surrounding countries, however more recently we are mostly seeing Afghani and Pakistani migrants. Few speak English, so we have cultural mediators to assist in the majority of our patient encounters. Aside from wounds, we also see unmanaged chronic disease, such as diabetes and hypertension, as these patients have not had access to routine medical care in quite some time. Unfortunately, reproductive health is one thing we have been unable to address, and having to turn down requests for this responsible proactive step in one’s health is crushing.
On the daily
Although we only see patients during a 3.5 hour window, the 6 days a week we provide care are filled from start to finish. The morning starts in our flat with restocking wound care supplies and going by the local pharmacy to replenish the prior day’s prescriptions, in addition to hopeful referral phone calls to another NGO that can provide specialist care. The public bus drops us off about a 10 minute walk across a train track and down a street lined with garbage that appears to be turning into a landfill.
Patients already waiting outside have to wait slightly longer in the heat while we get set up. There are no oak trees planted and intended for shade in the red-light district where our clinic rents the second (or third, if you’re American) floor of an old warehouse. During all of this, one of our logistic coordinators might be running other errands as he did the other day, dropping off 1500 covid tests to a nearby prison, of which the inside is known to some of our patients who had the unfortunate event of experiencing immigration detention.
We have a volunteer at the door to crowd manage while also handing out water in this 90-degree-plus heat. Due to COVID we have to limit the number of people inside the clinic, but while a handful of patients are in the waiting area they are provided with access to more water, a snack, and basic supplies such as shampoo, masks, and condoms. Sheets hang from the ceiling to provide privacy between patient areas, and windows are cracked open to bring in an occasional breeze. Post-clinic hours might be spent at the warehouse for more restocking, attending an urgent house call, taking a patient to the hospital who might not otherwise be attended to, and meetings discussing more complicated patient cases.
At the end of a recent clinic shift, 4 men arrived together after having walked 17 days to get here, all with foot wounds. They were cared for and given fresh pairs of socks, and we closed up for the day as we usually do. But as a group of 4 of us walked out with plans for afternoon shopping and dinner in the downtown area, I could see the 4 of them crouched down against the brick wall of our building in the shade. This contrast in our lives - theirs of having to flee their home country and likely not knowing where they were going to get their next meal or where they might sleep that night with ours of privilege due to winning the border lottery at birth - is a gut wrenching feeling that keeps me wanting to do this work.