By Drew Hinshaw and Natalia Ojewska | Photographs by Maciek Nabrdalik for The Wall Street Journal

MIĘDZYCHÓD, Poland—So many new doctors left Poland for better-paying jobs in Europe’s west that when Łukasz Rotnicki decided to stay behind he often found himself working 36-hour shifts, sleeping on the brown pullout sofa of a small-town hospital with too few staff.

That was before Covid-19.

On a recent Monday, the 36-year-old surgeon was on his 74th consecutive hour of treating coronavirus patients, broken by only a few short naps.

At the same hospital, a local nurse had recently been hospitalized, feverish and short of breath. Yet the staffing crunch was so dire that she kept working in the very Covid-19 ward where she was meant to recover, feeding the sick and turning them onto their stomachs before returning to her own bed in the same room.

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