He reached patients in a sleigh through snowdrifts, sterilized syringes in a pot of boiling water, and the only antibiotics available were penicillin. 83-year-old Stefan Torczyński has been a feldsher since 1958. He is one of the last people in Poland practicing this profession.
Mr. Stefan is a very modest person. He tells us at the beginning that he is just one of a whole host of wonderful people who – especially in the early years of the Polish People’s Republic – made a huge contribution to the organization and functioning of the Polish health service.
These are medics, i.e. people who, although they have not completed medical studies, are entitled to provide medical assistance.
Everything except strong narcotic drugs
This profession was popular immediately after World War II, when – especially in rural areas – there was a shortage of doctors. After graduating from a three-year high school, the feldsher could perform most of his medical duties, including prescribing medications and issuing L4.
– We cannot only prescribe strong narcotic drugs – emphasizes Mr. Stefan.
The last year of training in this profession
He is currently 83 years old. He has been in the profession since 1958, when, after two years of high school and passing the so-called He graduated from a three-year medical school in Łódź. This was the last year in which it was possible to study in this field in Poland. Since then, only six years of medical studies remain.
– Except that graduating from the medical school meant that you could go to medical school without taking exams. Many of my colleagues took advantage of this opportunity. I had to support my family, so I had to go to work, he says.
He had an idea to become a priest
He recalls that he has always wanted to help others. He even thought about becoming a priest, but he wanted to start a family, so he chose to become a doctor. Although he was born in one of the villages in the Konin district in the current Greater Poland Voivodeship, he spent most of his life with Podlasie.
– When I was in the medical school, it was said that in the then Białystok Voivodeship, especially in rural areas, there was the greatest lack of medical care. So, together with two friends, we went to these areas. All three of us wanted to work in one district. One of my colleagues immediately resigned because he had difficulty understanding the dialect commonly used by the local population, and the other one started medical studies after a year, says our interlocutor.
There was no electricity, let alone telephones
He recalls that in those days, doctors only saw patients in the cities of Brańsk and Bielsk Podlaski.
The inhabitants of the surrounding villages benefited from the care of medics. There wasn’t a day or even a night that went by without someone calling on him.
– When I started, there was no electricity in the houses, let alone telephones. There were no asphalt roads or buses. People came to me in horse-drawn carts, and the winters were not as mild as they are today, he recalls.
Two clinics and a nursing home
In 1958, he started working in the village of Widźgowo in the Bielsko County, and later moved to Holoneki, located nearby, where he continues to treat patients to this day. The health center there is his main place of work. He also sees patients at a clinic in Brańsk. It looks like he’s in Holonki in the morning, and in the afternoon he’s going to Brańsk. He finishes work in the evening. In the meantime, he also treats patients in the nursing home for the elderly he founded in Łub Kościelne.
– This is his private initiative. He thus fulfilled one of his dreams. For as long as I can remember, he has been saying that he wants such a place to be created. He achieved this in 2020. The expansion is scheduled to be completed soon. So we will be able to accept even more people – says Jarosław Bańkowski, Mr. Stefan’s grandson.
Grandson: patients came to him from Warsaw
He adds that his grandfather never refused to help anyone.
– Whether on a weekday or on a Sunday. I remember that when I was a child, people could come or call even at 2 a.m. He never said he couldn’t. He often recalls how he used to travel to patients in a sleigh. This is a person who – although not officially a doctor – fully understands this profession. He is a doctor by vocation in the full sense of the term. Besides, no one ever called him a feldsher. He was always called “doctor”, says the grandson.
He also agrees with us that his grandfather is a very modest person.
– In 2020, he was honored with the title of Honorary Citizen of the City of Brańsk. He also received many other awards. However, he always repeats that all this is not necessary. He certainly never did anything for show. And he is known not only in his district or Podlasie. Patients came to him from as far away as Warsaw. Whoever you talk to, everyone has a story about their grandfather. About helping someone. There are queues of patients every day. And he did everything during these years. He delivered babies, extracted teeth, and drained water from knees, says Bańkowski.
He delivered his own son
Stefan Torczyński confirms that in fact, medics – especially at the beginning – worked in virtually all fields of medicine.
– And when it comes to giving birth, I have delivered them many times. Including my third child. It was winter. We were driving along winding roads to the maternity ward when my wife went into labor. Fortunately, we noticed a forester’s lodge. That’s where my son was born. To make things more interesting, he married a girl who was also born on the way to the maternity ward. Only not in the forester’s lodge, but on a sleigh – he smiles.
There were also humorous situations
He tells these kinds of anecdotes off his sleeve.
– A patient once came and said his eye hurt. I looked but didn’t find anything. So I sent him to an ophthalmologist. He also spread his hands. After four days, the patient came to me again and imagine that I found a three-centimeter piece of straw in his eye, which was already visible because it was covered with pus. I still wonder how it happened that neither I nor the ophthalmologist noticed such a large foreign body four days earlier, he says.
She recalls the story of a patient who said she was referred to an oncologist because she had a tumor on her leg.
– I touched this “bump” and manipulated it in such a way that it pierced the skin. It turned out that a several-centimeter long needle was inserted into the leg. The woman said that if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes, she would never have believed it. She didn’t remember pricking herself before, she says.
He was carrying 20 liters of denatured alcohol from Łódź. It was needed for sterilization
He has known many of his patients since they were born, and in some cases he has even treated their grandparents and great-grandparents.
– At the beginning, the only medicines I had were penicillin. After a year of work, streptomycin was introduced, he recalls.
He also talks about the huge problem he had with sterilizing, for example, syringes. Because there were no plastic ones yet, which, like today, end up in the trash after being used once. It looked like Mr. Stefan was throwing them into a pot of boiling water heated on an alcohol burner.
– However, we had a problem with purchasing denatured alcohol for this burner. So I went to Bielsk Podlaski to get an assignment from the chairman of the district national council. The allocation was small – only two liters per month. However, at that time I was studying physics part-time in Łódź, and I was in that city once every three weeks, and there was denatured alcohol in the shops there. So I carried 10 or even 20 liters at a time. People on the train looked at me strangely. They probably wondered why anyone needed so much denatured alcohol, he smiles.
About 900 vaccinated in one day
Syringes were needed for vaccinations. Torczyński recalls that, for example, up to 200 people were vaccinated against typhoid fever in one day.
– I will never forget my first vaccinations. It was in my first year on the job, in December 1958. It is true that these were polio vaccinations, i.e. oral vaccinations, but our task was to vaccinate 920 people that day. We managed to get about 900 of them. We went home to those who didn’t come, he recalls.
When he started, he was not yet 18 years old. The minister’s intervention was needed
Interestingly, when he started, Mr. Stefan was probably the youngest feldsher in Poland, and now he is probably one of the oldest. When he passed the exams at the medical school, he was not yet 18 years old, and to practice his profession he had to be of age.
The school principal advised him to write to the minister asking for an exception to this rule. It worked and he started working as a 17-year-old. Currently, he is probably one of the last feldshers who were educated in Poland and who still practice their profession.
There will be no new medics in Poland
– There are currently 236 people listed in the Central Register of Felczerów. About 50 are relatively young medics from beyond the eastern border – from Belarus or Ukraine – whose qualifications are recognized in Poland. The rest were people educated in Poland in schools that graduated their last batches in 1958. These are people born, for example, in 1937 or 1939. It is difficult to say whether they are still working in their profession. Probably not anymore. However, they are listed in the register, says attorney Michał Kozik, who is in charge of the Central Register of Field Doctors at the Supreme Medical Chamber.
One thing is for sure. There will be no new medics in Poland. Even those from across the eastern border. In 2020, regulations came into force stating that it is no longer possible in Poland to grant the right to practice the profession of feldsher to new people.
Main photo source: Jarosław Bańkowski