We’re all the same: A doctor’s experience along the Polish-Ukrainian border

By Jennifer Bissell

Spillville native Stacey Maroushek has always known she wanted to be a doctor. Now working at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minn., Maroushek works in pediatric infectious diseases and general pediatrics, with a focus on immigrant and refugee health.

Spillville native Stacey Maroushek has always known she wanted to be a doctor. As a second grader in the South Winneshiek School District, Maroushek said she felt a calling to go into healthcare.
Now working at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minn., Maroushek works in pediatric infectious diseases and general pediatrics, with a focus on immigrant and refugee health. Recently, Maroushek traveled to Poland, working in a converted refugee center on the border with Ukraine, assisting refugees fleeing the war-torn country.

As luck would have it
After graduating from South Winn High School in 1982, Maroushek went to Wartburg College, then completed the University of Minnesota’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MD/PhD). She remained in the Twin Cities area, spending the past 25 years working at the Hennepin County Medical Center. She often works with immigrants and refugees just coming into the country.
“I really settled into working with the underserved at the County Hospital. It’s been a good fit for me, growing up in
rural Iowa and in poverty like I did. I have an understanding of their social circumstances,” she said. With a passion for international travel and health, Maroushek has also traveled around the world providing medical assistance.
The opportunity to serve Ukrainian immigrants happened by chance. A friend of Maroushek’s planned to go to Poland on a two-week assignment with an NGO (non-governmental organization) called NATAN out of Tel Aviv, Israel. A group of social workers, nurses, interpreters and doctors from all over the world were traveling to work at a refugee center called Tesco, which is an old shopping mall that’s been converted into a refugee center in the town of Przemysl. When the friend could no longer go, Maroushek was asked if she’d take his place.
Maroushek explained that when the crisis began in the spring, about 5,000 refugees a day came through the center. Just before Maroushek arrived in Przemysl, she said the policy changed, allowing refugees to stay in the country for two days before needing to go elsewhere. At that time, she said the center was seeing about 500 patients a day.
“I was there the last two weeks in August, and what we did was we ran the clinic. It was open in shifts so the refugees could come at any time. Most of what I saw was women and children because the men were scripted under Martial Law to fight so it was the women and children fleeing,” she said.
She also volunteered at The Greenhouse, which isn’t a sanctioned center but was an old boarding school that was turned into a refugee housing area if they needed to stay beyond the 48-hour limit at Tesco.

Some stories
During her two-week stint, Maroushek said she saw a variety of conditions and patients. One woman had recently had a C-Section to deliver a roughly 13-14 pound baby. Just days after delivery, she had to carry the child to escape Ukraine. Maroushek explained her C-Section stitches had come undone from carrying the baby.
“We worked with people to try to get her a stroller so she wouldn’t have to carry her baby. We got her incision fixed, and we got her to stay in the boarding house so she could recover for a few weeks. She was very grateful and excited not to move again after 48 hours,” she said.
Maroushek said some days at the clinic were slow and other days she was wiped out by the end of her shift.
“Some days were easier where you could sit and talk to people about what was going on in their lives. We had social workers and psychologists so we could really hear some of their stories that came through. It was rewarding but also very, very sad because these are people like you and me. They’re dressed in fancy coats and carrying suitcases and walking along the highway like you and I were having to go to Canada. This is not an underdeveloped, limited resource country,” she said.
Maroushek said she was in Poland for the Ukrainian Independence Day. On that day, there was a threat to blow up the nuclear power plant. Marousek said that day was spent trying to find potassium iodine and making an evacuation plan just in case. Another day was spent at The Greenhouse trying to contain a head lice outbreak.
“These are all upper-middle class folks or more affluent people who now have head lice,” she said. “The first person that came through was a little, old lady who was like ‘I’ll go first to show them it’s not scary’ but then we had a mom come through and she burst into tears because of the shame of it.
I think there were probably 420-450 people at the Greenhouse boarding area, and we must have found a couple hundred cases of head lice. We spent a whole day, three of us, going through every single resident’s head.”
Maroushek and the group she was with also were there to listen. “We heard some really horrible stories about houses being bombed out and losing loved ones and not knowing where brothers, husbands, uncles were,” she said. “You would hear stories of ‘We couldn’t get out.’ They were telling us that when they asked to get out, they were told by the Russian soldiers ‘your children belong to Mother Russia now, they’re never leaving.’ That goes along with other stories where they were forcibly relocating people to Russian.”

Dr. Beanie Baby
While Maroushek helped the refugees medically, she also tried to bring a little joy to their lives. She said her clinic in Minnesota donated Beanie Babies as well as bubble gum.
“I did daily rounds, walking around the halls and as I’d stop to check on the kids and the parents, I’d give them something. Sometimes that smile I’d get from the parents for bubble gum would be bigger than the kids’ smiles.”
There were also other groups there handing out necessities, such as SIM cards once refugees reached Poland, diapers, toiletries, shoes and clothing, among other items.

What she learned
“One thing I’ve sort of always known but it reinforced for me was that people are people. People are more alike than they are different,” she said. “People are people, with the same hopes, dreams, wishes, wants for their children to grow up and be successful. The more I’ve gotten to learn about different cultures and ethnic groups, the more I realize we’re all the same. How we practice is different but what we believe is the same.
“I also learned that just like with anybody that’s in your group of people you know, there are good people and there are bad people. It was sad and gratifying at the same time. You learned to do what you could when you could.”