Spokane doctor joins flood of refugees in Poland after learning his medical services are no longer needed

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LVIV, UKRAINE — An alarm sounds, the eerie moan piercing the morning calm and waking Kyle Varner.

The noise was unfamiliar to the Spokane doctor who slept on the floor of a hotel in Lviv, Ukraine. Here in Lviv, however, the alarm has become a regularity since the Russian invasion in late February. For the most part, residents ignore the sirens, although bomb shelters that have stood idle for decades across the city have reopened.

Still, it was a disturbing experience for Varner. Groggy, he put on his shoes, strategically placed the night before, and stumbled down the hall. No one else came out of their room and, after a moment of wondering where exactly to go, the alarm ended, Varner went back to his makeshift bed and got a few more hours of sleep.

Eli Francovich / The Spokesman’s Review

It was the fitting end to a frustrating and confusing 24 hours for Varner, a doctor at Providence Holy Family Hospital who arrived in Ukraine Thursday night after driving from Poland. He had come loaded with supplies from Spokane and a letter of invitation from a military hospital asking for help. They told him local media would be there to document his arrival and set an example for other foreign doctors seeking to help soldiers and civilians injured in the fighting.

However, things change – especially during the war – and Varner spent all of Friday in a hospital room waiting to hear what was next. At 4 p.m. he was informed that he was not needed and was told that hospitals in some regions of Ukraine such as Lviv were 50% occupied, with 100% staff. Varner found himself without a room to sleep that night, or a clear objective in the midst of a war.

At the same time, rumors swirled online and on the streets that Belarusian soldiers were massing near the border, ready to invade Ukraine at 9 p.m. If that happened, the route by which Varner and Tom Palmer, a friend and associate, had entered Ukraine would no longer be safe.

The pair discussed options over coffee at the Cat Café in downtown Lviv, the calming setting in stark juxtaposition with the dire details of the conversation. As shocking as that was, it was an appropriate contrast. Despite the sirens of air raids and the ongoing war, daily life continued in Lviv, which is 350 miles from the front lines. Men, women and children took to the streets on Friday to shop, eat and go to work. One Ukrainian spoke enthusiastically about the beauty of Lviv, the trails and hills within an hour’s drive from the hustle and bustle of the city center.

Yet there are signs of war.

Heavily armed police and soldiers patrolled, and markers pointed to the nearest bomb shelters. An influx of refugees from further east brought more traffic. Hotel rooms are booked and Lviv train station has seen 10,000 or more people arrive every day. Fortified checkpoints guard the entrances and exits to towns, restaurants and bars are prohibited from selling beer or alcohol, and photos are discouraged.

Palmer found out the hard way on his first night in town. He was driving to his hotel and following a local man in city traffic when he became separated from the man and had to stop. Hoping to get his bearings, he snapped a picture of a nearby road sign and texted it to his guide. He was immediately accosted by heavily armed police dressed in black clothing and face coverings. A tense few minutes passed, with the police thinking Palmer was a spy or saboteur, and Palmer trying to explain what he was doing. The Ukrainian man came back and explained the situation, and everything was fine.

Eli Francovich / The Spokesman’s Review

Palmer told this story at the Cat Cafe while Varner wondered what to do next. Frustrated as he was, he acknowledged that “it is what it is”.

He considered going to a Red Cross aid station at the train station and helping there, or perhaps returning to Poland and gathering more supplies. Or shuttle refugees from the border and take them further into Poland. Everything depended on the invasion of Belarus that evening.

“Everything will go to (expletive),” Varner predicted. But by 9 p.m. the Belarusians had not invaded, and Varner went to sleep in the small hotel room he shared with Palmer.

After the air raid siren woke him early Saturday morning, Varner slept a few more hours and found himself in a largely static situation. Russian forces remained far to the east, although several western towns were shelled during the night. Rumors continued to circulate that Belarus would invade. Or maybe not? Nobody knew. Belarus said they would not, and Varner decided he would be more useful on the Polish side of the border, gathering supplies or shuttling refugees from the border further into Poland.

Eli Francovich / The Spokesman’s Review

So he started the journey back to Poland, normally a two-hour drive. About an hour from Lviv, traffic slowed as a line of cars headed for the border. Then the traffic crawled on until it finally reached the border and a swirling mass of uprooted humanity. Hundreds of women and children came forward, suitcases and pets in tow. Volunteers were pouring coffee and handing out food, and Ukrainian guards were checking every vehicle to make sure men of fighting age (18 to 60) weren’t trying to flee.

Passports and papers were checked, and then Varner, after a six-hour journey from Lviv, was back in Poland and the safety of the NATO alliance. He planned to spend Saturday evening in a hotel in Warsaw. The setback will not deter Varner, who believes that if Russian President Vladimir Putin is not “arrested in Ukraine, we will find ourselves at war with him”.

The magazine’s spokesperson reporter Eli Francovich traveled to Eastern Europe this week to cover a Spokane doctor’s efforts to help Ukrainians suffering as a result of Russia’s invasion. The trip was funded largely by Spokesman-Review readers who donated to the Community Journalism Fund and the paper’s Northwest Passages series of events. To help support this trip and similar newsroom efforts, contributions can be made to spokesperson.com/thank you.

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