Bringing life amid death: Kharkiv doctor delivers babies in wartime
Kharkiv felt the full force of Russia’s assault on Ukraine and is still in danger from long-range weapons and airstrikes. While most of its population has escaped, some felt a need to remain, including Yana and her husband, doctors bringing newborns into the world. Journalist Oleksandra Ambroz recorded her story.
“On 23 February it was my birthday. Children and relatives came, we had dinner, went to bed, and in the morning my son called and said: ‘You didn't hear anything yet?’ On the 25th I went on duty to the hospital.”
I heard about Yana from our new friends, a couple who live with us in a house in Western Ukraine, where we fled from our respective cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv. Nastya and Bogdan work in the IT sector, but they are friends with many doctors. One of them is midwife-gynecologist Yana Krylenko, who works at the Kharkiv Perinatal Center and has been delivering babies for 32 years. Even war did not stop her.
“Our maternity ward is close to the centre. The situation here is different every day. Sometimes the fighting reaches us,” Yana tells me on the phone from the perinatal center where she is on duty. “It was especially hot at the beginning of the war”.
Kharkiv is one of the most heavily damaged cities in Ukraine. The second city of 1.5 million is the regional centre for the whole northeast. The border with Russia is just 35 kilometres away. Missiles rained onto the city at 5 am. on 24 February, and two days later the first Russian tanks entered eastern Kharkiv. Although they did not stay there long, Kharkiv remains under partial siege, in range of heavy weapons and airstrikes, to this day. Kharkiv’s hospitals have far fewer patients, but also fewer doctors.
“There are very few pregnant women, but they are still there”, Yana tells me. Her voice is calm. “We were somehow preparing for the war, we had a good basement and there was a supply of medicines and equipment. If there is no force majeure, births take place in the delivery room, but immediately after the birth, the mother and child are taken down to the basement.”
In the operating room, according to Yana, the windows are covered with mats and plastic sheeting to protect doctors, patients and newborns from broken glass.
“The operating room works in the same way: if it is very loud outside, everything is arranged in our basement.”
Doctors’ schedules have also had to adapt after public transport came to a halt in Kharkiv, making it difficult to get to and from the hospital. “From March we switched to the schedule: you work two days - you rest four.”
People just can't live like they used to - going to and from work twice a day, she says. The day I recorded the interview, there was news that tram tracks are being dismantled in Kharkiv (see the 11 May story on Geneva Solutions’ Ukraine Stories blog). One Russian artillery barrage destroyed all the city’s tramcars.
I ask Yana if there was a day when they were afraid that the hospital would be bombed.
“In March we arrived at the hospital. It looked like there was a piece of a rocket, a cluster bomb, or something on the ground. It broke the window of the ultrasound room. Thank God no one was hurt.”
Yana speaks in an even voice, as if braving cluster bombs was part of normal life for any maternity hospital around the world, as if it was part of every gynecologist's job to distinguish between mines and rockets, or todeliver babies in a damp basement where it is cold and difficult to breathe.
“And so it was, of course, scary. Especially when the centre was bombed”.
Only three kilometres separate the the perinatal centre where Yana works from the Kharkiv regional state administration building, where a Russian missile hit on 1 March. The last time the centre of Kharkiv was bombed was on 3 May.
I asked Yana if she thought of leaving Kharkiv, as hundreds of thousands of residents did.
“Of course, we thought about going, especially since the children were constantly shouting "get out of there!" But we thought we would stay. Where would we go? We are needed here. We have a place to go, we have relatives in western Ukraine. Even my sisters in Paris tell us to come. But we are doctors, we are conscripts. Even if no one mobilised us, we are needed here. We aren’t looking for medals. We’re not looking for a way out, I want to be at home.”
Yana pauses between short sentences. I think she smokes. “My husband brings doctors to work and delivers volunteer assistance.”
When the situation is scary, are there any thoughts that help to bring her comfort, I ask.
“It helps to be close to loved ones, and it’s easy at work because there is something to do. But it's hard when you are far from your family and you don't know how they are. It helps to talk to friends.”
But fear in incredible Kharkiv does not seem to linger, just like the Russian tanks, who quit Kharkiv after the 26 February breakthrough.
“All our acquaintances have already climbed out of their basements,” says Yana. I feel for those who have nowhere to live, like those from north Saltivka and all of Pyatihatki, which are all in ruins. (These are the northeastern and northern districts of Kharkiv that were hit by the heaviest Russian bombing - ed.).
“Many of them are now living in subways. Some of the girls that were brought to us in childbirth came from the subways, from bomb shelters.”
The perinatal centre’s own bomb shelter has been serving as a children’s intensive care unit, says Yana. “Premature babies were also born there. Women who give birth in our country are very organised now, not capricious.”
In recent days, Ukraine says its forces have pushed back more Russian troops north and north-east of Kharkiv, recapturing villages. However, it’s too soon to tell if people are returning to the region, or Kharkiv itself, says Yana.
“I can't say that there is massive movement; the railway stations are not busy. Everyone who wanted to go has already left, now the process is reversed. [The numbers] are much smaller than they were in the other direction, but still, something is moving.”
Much of the city’s housing has been damaged by the war. Earlier in May, Kharkiv mayo,r Igor Terekhov, said that the Russians destroyed a third of the city's housing stock. Yana’s neighbourhood also came under attack.
“On 28 April, bombs exploded two and a half kilometers from my house. There were victims.” This was when Russian soldiers fired on the village of Pokotylivka on the outskirts of Kharkiv, killing five and injuring 11.
“There’s constant rattling, all the time. We quickly understood. If it whistles, we lie down. If it sounds like rolling thunder, that’s our Ukrainian army. It's good.”
“What would you like to do when the war is over?”, I ask Yana.
I think I can hear her puffing on a cigarette. She takes a very long pause. For the first time since our conversation, I feel her voice tremble.
“I want to throttle them all. They have to take responsibility for their actions. Because today at one o'clock in the morning a wonderful couple came to us – a very nice man and his wife, young, beautiful, with a full-term pregnancy. And some monsters dared to ruin their lives. It is a pity for the small children who are born.
“We are, of course, optimists. We hope that we will win, we are almost sure of that. But all the same, these are the sufferings that Kharkiv residents and residents of Ukraine are currently experiencing. You see what happened to Bucha and other places in the Kyiv region, where large-scale Russian war crimes against civilians shocked the world, and what is happening in Mariupol now. We hope only for our army, they are the best.”