Harpeth Hall humanitarians
by Jessica Bliss
Dr. Madeleine Byrd ’09 and her mother, Elena Byrd, spent part of 2022 providing humanitarian aid and medical services to Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw, Poland
For months following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, refugees poured out of red and yellow government buses that arrived in Warsaw, Poland, directly from the border. Passengers came by the thousands at all hours of the day and night with little else to their name but unhealed gunshot wounds and shrapnel embedded in their skin. They sought protection and medical aid.
Each day around the clock, Harpeth Hall alumna Dr. Madeleine Byrd ‘09 and her mother, Elena Byrd, worked side-by-side to care for those displaced by violence.
The duo traveled to Poland just weeks after infantry divisions and armored and air assault teams first launched attacks on Eastern Ukraine in the dawn of Feb. 24, 2022. Compelled to take action, the Byrds worked in several locations, including an enormous Polish warehouse that served as a converted refugee shelter. They sorted supplies from around the world, created filing systems for intake forms, and provided medical assistance to individuals who had nowhere else to turn.
“Many emergencies happened in the middle of the night,” Elena Byrd said. “There was no one there but us.”
The Byrds detailed their experiences during a special distinguished speaker series event with the Tennessee World Affairs Council in January 2023. Back home in the United States after months of humanitarian service, the two women shared what drew them to help and what unfolded in their months in a country across the Atlantic.
For Elena, the motivation was personal. Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, she grew up in Cuba and fled with her family during the Cuban Revolution to move to the United States. Her mother was a physician and committed her life to public health. Elena spent much of her life going with her mother to Haiti and other places in the world to provide medical care.
“When the war first broke out … we went primarily because we felt a real calling,” Elena said during the Tennessee World Affairs Council event. “Honestly, I felt a particularly strong connection with Ukrainians. Even though they are on the other side of the world, in some ways, from where I grew up . . . I understood the potential plight of the refugees.”
Still, she added, “Neither Madeleine nor I could imagine the conditions that we saw.”
Not long after their arrival, the women went to work. At first, they helped sort supplies in towering stacks of cardboard boxes. Elena, who is fluent in several languages, and Madeleine, who has a master’s in pharmacology, translated and organized the medicine that arrived in pallets from countries around the world.
The volunteers then created a pharmacy — with Fentanyl, Xanax, and everything in between — to be taken to the medical clinic. Soon, the Byrds were key assistants in developing the refugee center’s “medical point.”
Madeleine wanted to be a pediatrician beginning at age 7, inspired by her maternal grandmother, a pediatrician and global public health specialist. After graduating from Harpeth Hall, she completed her M.D. at Georgetown University, becoming a fourth-generation “Dr. Byrd” in Nashville. After medical school, she went to Charleston, South Carolina, for pediatric residency training.
In Poland, Madeleine put to use her lifelong passion for pediatrics and public health. With so many women and children among the
evacuees — and few female doctors — her presence was essential. She worked hand-in-hand with one of the Ukrainian doctors treating diseases such as measles, mumps, and chicken pox, which have been nearly eradicated in the United States with the help of vaccines and which many new U.S. doctors have never seen.
An average of 5,000 refugees slept in cots that lined the warehouse floors each night. The “medical point” was open 24 hours a day, but often only one local EMS and one doctor were on site, and they left when evening fell. That meant that when many of the children felt worsening symptoms in the late-night hours, it was up to Madeleine to fill the gap. And often, as the longest-term volunteers at the refugee “expo,” the Byrds were called to teach groups from other countries — which often came in one-or two-week shifts — how the center ran.
“Sometimes, we would go from one doctor to having 15 available as some volunteer groups came in. But, as soon as they were starting to get to know the system, they were out, and another group came in,” Madeleine said.
Both Madeleine and Elena said the volunteer efforts needed a more systematic structure. “There was a tremendous, tremendous need,” Elena said. “And the infrastructure was so minimal.”
One of the bright spots for the women was seeing the refugees step in to help. One of the greatest needs was for translators to help bridge the language barrier. It was common for those seeking shelter and care to often offer support to others.
“It was a beautiful experience in many ways because one-third of the residents of the refugee center would also take on volunteer duties,” Madeleine said. “A good percentage of the staff was refugees themselves.”
As the conflict in Ukraine continues, Madeleine is quick to remind others that the need is still great. Though international attention on the conflict has diminished from the first weeks and months, the Byrds remain committed to their mission in Warsaw. They have become an integral part of the response efforts that support the Ukrainian refugee community, offering hope, compassion, and essential aid to those affected by the crisis.
They hope that by sharing their global perspectives, others will do the same.