Nothing could be scarier than giving birth in a warzone.
As Russian forces continue to bear down on Ukrainian cities, healthcare workers are trying to make the best of a nearly impossible situation. A maternity ward in the city of Mariupol recently had to move underground for shelter. Providers moved new mothers into the basement hoping to keep them safe from the bloodshed outside.
As a new mother, Kateryna Suharokova, 30, tried to control her emotions while she held her son in her arms. Upstairs, several Ukrainian doctors were racing to save a victim of a Russian shelling attack.
“I was anxious, anxious about giving birth to the baby in these times,” she said with her voice trembling. “I’m thankful to the doctors, who helped this baby to be born in these conditions. I believe that everything will be fine.”
The basement of the facility has been turned into a temporary bomb shelter and nursery. The dimly lit room is full of makeshift beds, cribs, and treatment areas for patients as staff try to make do with what they have.
A similar scene unfolded in the city of Kharkiv, where a maternity ward was moved into a bomb shelter. Mothers took shelter as they rocked newborns in cradles with mattresses piled against the windows for protection.
Russian forces have been bearing down on civilian areas of Ukraine. Mariupol is considered a key target for Russian President Putin, who can then wage an attack from the southern coast.
As more victims of Russian shelling attacks started streaming into the hospital, Oleksandr Balash, the head of the anesthesiology department, lifted a sheet to see a young boy lying dead on the table.
“Do I need to say more? This is just a boy,” Balash said. “These are all peaceful citizens who were injured in … a regular neighborhood.”
Giving Birth in a Warzone
The crisis has been particularly difficult for pregnant women and new mothers. Ukraine has imposed martial law and all men of fighting age have been drafted into the military, leaving many women to cope on their own.
Mariia Shostak, 25, started having contractions the day the Russian invasion began. She was about to give birth in Kyiv when the air raid sirens started going off.
“I had a complicated pregnancy, and I went to the maternity hospital early so that the child and I would be under medical supervision. When I woke up on 24 February, my phone’s screen was full of messages from relatives. Even before reading them, I realized something had happened,” she remembers.
“The same morning, I had light contractions, and, in the afternoon, we were evacuated to the basement shelter for the first time. It was scary. At night, I did not sleep.”
Her contractions intensified that night. The next day, a doctor examined her and told her she was going to give birth.
When the time came, “I was lucky with the birth – it did not happen in the basement though some women gave birth in a room set up for this purpose,” Shostak added.
“I started in the delivery room but had to be transferred to the operating room for a Cesarean section. Later, when air raid sirens went off, the medical staff wanted to evacuate me to the basement, but I refused. Because of the pain, I couldn’t even speak, let alone go anywhere. The rest of the time I was disconnected from the outside world, which was probably the only time I forgot about the war.”
She remembers waking up in the ICU alone without her husband or child.
“Meanwhile, another air raid siren sounded, and I decided to go down to the basement. I was in a disposable shirt, without shoes, in a wheelchair, holding a urinary catheter,” she said.
She was then escorted to the shelter where she met her son Arthur for the first time.
“I felt fear, fatigue, and pain. The day after surgery, I went up to the maternity ward and back down to the basement several times a day. Again and again, the air raid siren sounded,” she added.
“Exhaustion blunted the fear until a projectile hit a high-rise building, we could see from our window. I managed to sleep for an hour or two a day. We spent most of the time in the basement sitting in chairs. My back hurt from sitting, and my legs are still swollen as a pregnancy complication.”
Her husband eventually made it to the hospital where the couple reunited.
Despite the fear of another attack, Shostak said she doesn’t plan on leaving Kyiv any time soon.
“I feel safe in the capital – there are enough shelters and timely information is coming from the authorities. My husband arranged a corner for us in the basement of our house to stay. I was born and raised here in Kyiv; I have no other home. We are not going to leave,” she said.