On the front lines of Ukraine, a fight to save premature babies

POKROVSK, Ukraine –

Echoing through the corridors of the perinatal hospital in Pokrovsk, in eastern Ukraine, the loud cries of little Veronika can be heard.

Born nearly two months premature at 3 pounds, 4 ounces (1.5 kilograms), the baby receives oxygen through a nasal tube to help her breathe while ultraviolet lamps inside an incubator treat her jaundice.

Dr. Tetiana Myroshnychenko carefully connects the tubes that allow Veronika to feed on her mother’s stored breast milk and ease her hunger.

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, three hospitals in the government-controlled areas of the country’s war-torn Donetsk region had facilities to care for premature babies. One was hit by a Russian airstrike and the other had to close as a result of the fighting, leaving only the maternity hospital in the coal mining town of Pokrovsk still in operation.

Myroshnychenko, the only neonatologist left on site, now lives in the hospital. His three-year-old son splits the week between staying at the facility and having his father, a coal miner, at home.

The doctor explains why it is now impossible to leave: even when the air-raid sirens sound, the babies in the hospital’s above-ground incubation room cannot be disengaged from their life-saving machines.

“If I take Veronika to the shelter, it would take five minutes. But for her, those five minutes could be critical,” says Myroshnychenko.

Hospital officials say the proportion of premature or complicated births has doubled this year compared to earlier times, blaming stress and rapidly worsening living standards for affecting the remaining pregnant women in the area. .

The Russian- and Moscow-backed separatists now occupy just over half of the Donetsk region, which is similar in size to Sicily or Massachusetts. Pokrovsk is still in a Ukrainian government-controlled area 60 kilometers (40 miles) west of the front lines.

Inside the maternity wards of the hospital, talking about the war is discouraged.

“Everything that happens outside this building, of course, worries us, but we don’t talk about it,” Myroshnychenko said. “Her main concern right now is the baby.”

Although fighting in the Dontesk region began in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists began fighting the government and taking over parts of the region, new mothers are only now staying in hospital for longer periods because there are few opportunities to that they receive attention. once they have been discharged.

Among them is Inna Kyslychenko, 23, from Pokrovsk. Cradling her two-day-old daughter Yesenia, she was considering joining the region’s mass evacuation west to safer areas in Ukraine when she leaves the hospital. Many essential services in the government-controlled areas of Donetsk (heating, electricity, water supply) have been damaged by Russian shelling, leaving living conditions expected to worsen as winter approaches.

“I am afraid for little lives, not only for ours, but for all children, all over Ukraine,” Kyslychenko said.

More than 12 million people in Ukraine have fled their homes due to the war, according to UN aid agencies. Around half have been displaced within Ukraine and the rest have moved to other European countries.

However, moving the maternity hospital out of Pokrovsk is not an option.

“If the hospital was relocated, the patients would still have to stay here,” said the chief physician, Dr. Ivan Tsyganok, who continued to work even as the city was under Russian rocket attack.

“The delivery of babies is not something that can be stopped or rescheduled,” he noted.

The closest existing maternity center is in the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine, a 3.5-hour drive on secondary roads, a journey considered too risky for women in late pregnancy.

Last week, Andrii Dobrelia, 24, and his wife Maryna, 27, arrived at the hospital from a nearby town. Appearing anxious, they said little as doctors ran a series of tests, then wheeled Maryna into the operating room for a C-section. Tsyganok and his colleagues quickly changed clothes and prepared for the procedure.

Twenty minutes later, the cries of a newborn baby, Timur, were heard. After an examination, Timur was taken to meet his father in an adjoining room.

Almost afraid to breathe, Andrii Dobrelia tenderly kissed Timur’s head and whispered something to him. As the newborn calmed on his father’s chest, tears came to Andrii’s eyes.

As the war reaches the six-month mark, Tsyganok and his colleagues say they have one more hopeful reason to stay.

“These children that we are bringing into the world will be the future of Ukraine,” says Tsyganok. “I think their lives will be different from ours. They will live outside of the war.”

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