Since returning to his work as an emergency room physician at Providence Portland Medical Center in Northeast Portland, Dr. Joseph Howton says he’s more stressed now than he was in Poland, helping exhausted and grieving Ukrainian refugees there.

Howton couriered an oversized suitcase filled with medical supplies to Poland March 10, and, once there, worked with a translator to help displaced Ukrainians.

“I had a burning desire to help however I could,” Howton said.

He was frequently frustrated. Hospitals would not allow him to practice medicine because he wasn’t certified in Poland.

He thought about going on to Kyiv, having learned that there was always a need on the front lines and no bureaucratic barriers.

“My family would have killed me,” he said ruefully.

Still, Howton could help triage patients at impromptu clinics that popped up in Polish sports arenas.

And he learned about other ways to help — ways that regular people in Oregon can also support. “I found there was a lot I could do from the states,” Howton said.

There’s an ongoing need for operating room equipment in Ukraine, especially equipment for orthopedic and trauma surgery. Howton mentions external fixation rods (for shattered or badly fractured bones) and pulse irrigation systems for wound irrigation and wound suction cleaning.

“In Warsaw everything was sold out,” he said.

Howton works with groups that are buying the equipment in the United States and sending it straight to Eastern Europe and Ukraine.

“You bring it in luggage,” Howton explained, adding that the airlines have been waiving charges on those bags.

Howton personally bought the supplies he took with him, but Providence Health and Services has donated supplies to Medical Teams International, based in Tigard, which worked with the Ukrainian American Cultural Association of Oregon and Washington, a non-profit group based in Beaverton, to get bandages, sutures, surgical kits and more to Ukraine.

Dr. Kyle Varner, a Providence Spokane physician, flew with medical supplies to Poland in March. Providence donated those supplies.

Howton is also thinking about returning to Eastern Europe, perhaps this time to Lviv in western Ukraine, where he might be able to work as a physician.

He heard horrific accounts from refugees in Poland about the Russians’ brutality — a contrast from the earlier days of the war when many of the Russian invaders seemed to be uninterested in killing their neighbors, having either not been told they were going into Ukraine at all or else being told they would be greeted as liberators.

The photos, testimony and evidence of torture, murder, rape and other brutal war crimes from Bucha and other Ukrainian towns liberated from the Russian army didn’t surprise Howton.

“It’s what I was hearing from the people,” he said, “that Russians would go into bomb shelters and machine gun people. People hiding in churches were killed. And the Russians especially targeted hospitals and medical workers and facilities.”

As of April 6 the World Health Organization has reviewed and verified 91 attacks since Feb. 24 on health care infrastructure in Ukraine — more than two a day. The WHO also has taken reports of the abduction of staff and patients.

“The Ukrainians are bewildered as to why the Russians are there,” said Howton.

Having had the chance to see the war’s damage up close, he has come to his own conclusions about policy.

“I was at first very much in line with NATO caution,” he said. “That has changed for me. We have to be much more assertive. I’m not saying we should put American boots on the ground, but we can do a lot more. We can fight them now or later.”

To help — a group sending medical supplies to Ukraine — Medical Teams International, based in Tigard

In Poland, Howton also came in contact with a Polish nonprofit, From the Border to the Flat — Od Granicy Do Mieszkania (online at He met its founder, Kuba Lang, who turned his IT company into a non-profit serving Ukrainian refugees (90% of whom are women and children), putting all his employees to work ferrying refugees to homes they have found, skipping the crowded stadiums.