Behind the holiday island: The refugee crisis and the future for healthcare on Leros

     Pandeli Harbour, Leros

Here is the second part of the interview with my friend, Takis Varnas, who works as a nurse on Leros in the Dodecanese islands. I am indebted to him for his practical help and advice to better my understanding of the refugee experience on Leros, which forms a background to Jigsaw Island, published this month. More importantly, here’s Takis…

‘At the beginning of the refugee crisis, when around 4-5,000 refugees were accommodated on the island of Leros, local people but mainly professionals, working in public services, either in healthcare or in security services such as the police and the port police, experienced unprecedented situations and had to work in difficult and unexpected conditions without any preparation or training.

Back then a lot of NGOs from different countries around the world were coming to Leros and to other islands by the dozen, providing help in various fields.
Many of them have offered, and continue to offer, meaningful work and services today. In my view, without their expertise in major issues, the crisis would have gone beyond any control. Of course, there were also many controversial NGOs whose purpose seemed to aim at the various profit-making grants, and who disappeared from the map when those grants stopped.

I feel positively about working and cooperating with NGOs whose field of action is refugee rescue, healthcare, and the education of younger refugees. After all, I have been personally involved in various voluntary activities supported by the local Volunteers Blood Donor Association and a lot of my close friends work for or volunteer in such NGOs.’

One of the many children being held in the refugee ‘hot spot’ on Leros





How does Takis think outside countries / agencies could help further in the continuing crisis?
‘I believe this is a question which it would be better answered by an official or political person in the municipality of Leros, or perhaps the region of the Dodecanese Islands, who has the responsibility for these issues and manages their details.

As a both a citizen of a country experiencing prolonged economic and humanitarian crises and a person facing day to day difficulties due to the austerity measures imposed on Greece, I believe that Europe and other foreign countries should provide more substantial assistance in the form of services and their funding as well as necessary infrastructures and hosting facilities for refugees and immigrants and for the local population, who must live in harmony and under difficult conditions with these people. An alternative view is that the problem rests with official local and government authorities who do not claim or properly request such assistance.

It was a difficult question to ask, but I wanted to understand the reality of Takis’s work,  the cases – or types of cases – that he and his colleagues experience.

It would be inappropriate to detail the facts and incidents that I have experienced in the emergency department of the hospital in Leros where I work, as they may cause distress to readers. To give you some idea, though, I volunteer to help on emergency cases, also with supporting parents in identifying the bodies of their children, who were tragically killed in the various wrecks. We have dealt with dozens of these kinds of incidents on a daily basis, including dozens of shipwreck survivors with extreme injuries who visit our hospital E.R. department to be examined and treated (early on, Leros E.R. department had only two equipped testing beds).

Here are two incidents that are typical of the pressures faced by patients and staff:

In the first case, after a shipwreck with 43 dead people, my colleagues and I, along with the doctors on E.R., had to treat the survivors. It was a very difficult and serious situation full of panic and horror.  We had to treat dozens of injured and traumatised survivors very quickly. We had been attending to the extensive wounds of one man when, after a while, we realised that due to general panic and pressure, we had been stitching him without applying any anaesthetic. He had shown us no sign of pain. We thought that perhaps he was mentally ill or that he had suffered from brain damage. Shortly afterwards, though, we learned from Social Services that the man was in deep shock because, a few hours earlier, his wife and his three sons had drowned in the shipwreck from which he was rescued.

In the second incident, we were confronted by a violent husband who did not allow the gynaecologist at the hospital to carry out a cesarean section on his pregnant wife, who was in a life-threatening situation. He was demanding to have only female doctors and nurses operating otherwise he wouldn’t let us take his wife to theatre. Of course, his ‘request’ was not accepted and his wife shortly gave birth safely to a healthy baby boy.

At the beginning of the refugee crisis, in the most extreme times, we had to face dozens of deaths and hundreds of serious incidents like the ones I have described, without any special education or training for such situations and the incidence of massive disasters.
It is not a secret that many of the healthcare professionals in Leros hospital often had to deal with psychological issues. I remember having nightmares for a month, unable to rest my mind or body.

But slowly and patiently we all figured out how to manage the situation psychologically, and with the experience we gained day by day from each incident we began to function fully professionally in situations that, earlier, had been beyond our experience.

Takis has been a dedicated promoter of the Blood Transfusion Service on Leros. I asked him to describe the growth of the service and how it is progressing.

For the last four years I have been involved extensively with the local volunteers’ blood donors association. I did so for two main reasons:
The first is that, aged 29, I had a very serious road accident that meant an immediate operation to stop internal bleeding. I needed 8 units of blood, but such a large amount is very difficult to find in a small island hospital like the one in Leros, especially in summertime. For this reason the doctors desperately needed to find out which of the nearby islands’ hospital had 8 units of blood available, so that a port police high-speed boat could carry them in for the operation. Obviously, the waiting time in mobilising aid for such a serious incident was extremely dangerous. This experience made me realise that a sufficient blood supply to hospitals is primarily a matter of volunteer blood donors who must be persuaded to offer their blood, willingly and more often.

The second reason is that, as a father of two children, I would like my kids and the rest of the kids on our island to have the opportunity through comprehensive information to gain the necessary awareness of the necessity and also the benefits of voluntary blood donation.
Here are some indications of progress made in recent years in the field of voluntary blood donation due to campaigning by the local volunteer association to the people of Leros, especially to school students of all ages.

• In a very short time, we have been able to increase by about 20% the annual number of blood units we collect from the voluntary blood donations on Leros.

• There has been also an expansion of age groups coming in to donate blood; most encouragingly, every year, about 15-20 students aged 17 years old are coming in to donate blood (with the necessary written consent from their parents required by Greek law because they have not yet reached adulthood).

• In general there is a very positive change of attitude especially towards young children about how voluntary blood donation should be treated by all of us.’

Takis (he’s the blue giant) with clinical colleagues at Leros Hospital










I asked Takis what he thinks are the opportunities and challenges for children, growing up on a small Greek island in the 21st Century.

‘In my own and my wife’s point of view, raising our children on such a small island as Leros, which can provide almost anything, is a blessing.

The quality of life and the activities that our children choose themselves, are always, in our point of view, far more effective and much more ‘healthy’ than those that parents can give their children growing up in a big city.

Let me illustrate: our two children aged 8 and 10 have the choice to engage in activities such as basketball, football, tennis, tae kwon do, sailing, ballet, yoga, traditional dances, learning traditional and classical musical instruments, children’s theatre, chess, creative writing, camping, scouting and much more.

It is clear that there are a lot of interesting activities for the children in the early stages. But for higher education, it is necessary to leave the island for a bigger city in Greece. It is also true that if a young person chooses to follow an activity more seriously or professionally, he or she must seek opportunities in a city where such challenges exist.’

Takis out of interview mode:
‘Before ending, I would like to make an announcement so I can inform all our friends who may be interested, that here on Leros I belong to a great team, consisting mostly of healthcare professionals, who specialise in first aid and emergency situations. We have started a very new and ambitious voluntary project which is really necessary and that has to do with Search & Rescue and also with Civil Protection.

The idea is to support and provide help to the government authorities in emergency situations such as rescuing people from shipwrecks due to the refugee crisis, firefighting, rescuing people from car accidents, search and rescue for animals etc.

As you can understand this particular project needs major funding for special training that we have to pay for ourselves and we also need a lot of special rescue equipment, so if someone reading this is really interested and capable of helping us by providing any kind of equipment to our search & rescue team, it would be very welcome. We are not in a position to accept cash. But if someone wants to make a donation or an offer of equipment and materials to our team, our contact e-mail address is: Thanks for your support.’

Takis Varnas

Many thanks, Taki, for your time and generosity, and for giving such selfless support to refugees and fellow Lerians alike. You and your colleagues, female and male, are not just heroes, you are Greek gods. 

That email address again:

This entry was posted in Britain in EU, Contemporary Women's Fiction, European Union, Greek Islands, Health Care, Leros, Personal, Refugees, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Behind the holiday island: The refugee crisis and the future for healthcare on Leros

  1. gilliallan says:

    Such a tragedy. There seems no end to this disaster. Europe should step up and take more refugees and stop calling them economic migrants. Who wouldn’t move if you’re starving where you are.


  2. Lynne says:

    It’s a heartrending situation, Gilli, the two extremes of the haves and the have nots on a holiday island. The hotspot on Leros is a desperate place, sited there by the EU. The disconnectedness of people who don’t recognise the plight of refugees is obscene. There but for fortune…


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