Photo by Oscar Durand for CRS

Coming to the Aid of Refugees One Patient at a Time

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Broken bones, swollen legs and upper respiratory infections are just a few of the ailments Dr. Katarina Mitrovic has come across in her work as a Catholic Relief Services medical responder in the European refugee crisis.

Mitrovic sees 90 to 100 patients a day under sometimes harrowing circumstances. Working along Serbia’s border crossings with Hungary and Croatia, she has grown accustomed to making diagnoses quickly.

“You have to work very fast in order to examine 100 people a day,” Mitrovic explains. “You have to know what questions to ask so that you can get right to the problem.”

Mitrovic, who specializes in internal medicine, credits her 30-plus years of experience with helping her respond to the medical needs of the thousands of refugees who continue to travel through Serbia on their way to the European Union.

“It’s very cold now in Serbia and Croatia. And yet a lot of these people are barefoot. They don’t even have socks. Some of them have short pants. It’s very sad,” she says.

CRS doctor Katarina Mitrovic meets with a refugee family in Serbia. Photo by Oscar Durand for CRS
CRS doctor Katarina Mitrovic meets with a refugee family in Serbia. Photo by Oscar Durand for CRS

Given the day-to-day changes at the various border crossings, the flow of refugees into the Balkans continues to shift. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that on one day in October 2015 10,000 refugees had entered Serbia from Macedonia, while up to 4,500 departed to Croatia.

In coordination with our Church partners and local organizations in Serbia, CRS is providing around-the-clock medical support, along with food, water, clothing, hygiene items, temporary shelter, and information, translation and legal services. We’re also responding to the European refugee crisis in Italy, Macedonia, Greece, Albania and Bulgaria.

Mitrovic recently spoke about what it’s like to bear witness to so much suffering, as she treats patients in desperate need of medical assistance.

Q: What are the typical ailments you treat?

A: Now that the weather is getting colder, I’m seeing more flu-like symptoms, especially among small children. They usually have a temperature and respiratory infections. I’m also seeing a lot of cases of diarrhea because of poor nutrition. And I’m seeing injuries like swollen legs because people have been walking for maybe [310 miles] before they get here.

Q: What kind of help are people asking for when they see you?

A: People are mostly asking for help with respiratory infections, so they want antibiotics or nose drops, or something for a sore throat … They also ask for help with their feet and their swollen legs.

Q: What would you say is the biggest challenge for you as a medical provider?

A: It’s very difficult to give a diagnosis without a lot of things that you would do in everyday practice. For example, if a patient says that they have abdominal pain, it’s very difficult to decide whether it’s something urgent, whether they have to go to the hospital. Under normal circumstances, we would do lab tests … During an emergency it’s very important not to miss anything.

Q: What are your biggest concerns?

A: I’m very concerned about the weather because most of these people are not used to the very cold weather. They don’t have weather like that in Syria. Even when it was hot here, they were overdressed for our conditions … I think the weather is going to lead to more sickness.

Q: How does treating these refugees, under these extreme circumstances, affect your own psyche?

A: I always ask myself, “Where are they going, and where are they coming from?" Then I realize that they’re coming from disaster. Everything is ruined over there. Just bad things in their country move them to come over here. I don’t know how many thousands of [miles] they’re walking or how many boat trips they’ve had to take. I think about what is going to happen to them. And whether they’ll survive their trip. I hope that they’ll find luck somewhere, and happiness … But I’m very concerned about the kids and the psychological effect that this experience must be having on them … They’re going to get medical help along the way. But what trauma are they going to have?

Q: What toll does this work take on you?

A: On Saturday a man approached me. He was a surgeon from Damascus, and now he’s had to leave his whole life behind … This is very difficult to live with. I ask myself, “What forced them to leave their own country and home?” One man told me about his wife and daughter and how a bomb fell on their house … This is something I have to deal with when I go home … I think people should care because I think caring is what makes us human. If people are in trouble, I think we should help them as much as we can.

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