Getting ready to become a mom. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

Getting ready to become a mom. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

In my 13 years working in outreach and communications for the USAID mission in Ukraine, I’ve had a chance to visit many USAID projects and to hear and write many success stories on how what we do has impacted people’s lives. But one project made my heart beat especially fast.

Every time I visited the maternity wards of hospitals cooperating with the USAID Maternal and Infant Health Project, no matter whether in Simferopol or Luhansk, Lviv or Lutsk, I always experienced a warm feeling of happiness for families that had taken advantage of a unique opportunity to experience the birth of their child in an individual family-friendly room, forming a lifelong connection by sharing an important moment.

My parents were not so lucky. Back in Soviet times, my mother delivered me in a very different environment. She shared the birth of her child in a common room with another woman in labor, in a cold, bare, spouse-free environment, on a proletarian Rakhmanov delivery chair while in labor for 24 hours.

When I was finally born, I was immediately whisked away to a separate nursery for newborns. A nurse brought me to my mother on schedule to be fed and then immediately taken away, ostensibly to prevent infections. Visitors were forbidden, including my father.

Standing outside the hospital on a cold winter day, my father tried to get a glimpse of his newborn daughter by looking at a bundle of humanity my mom was holding at the window on a fifth-floor delivery room, some 50 meters away. Hearing my parents recount this story, I felt so sorry for my lonely and scared mother, for my distanced and confused father, and for myself—for being separated from my family at such a critical, early hour of my life.

Thinking about having my own children, I often thought: “I better hurry up and find a maternity hospital before the USAID project ends.”

Father-son bonding. Levko is warmed on his father’s chest for two hours to prevent hypothermia as his mother recovers from a C-section. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

Father-son bonding. Levko is warmed on his father’s chest for two hours to prevent hypothermia as his mother recovers from a C-section. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

My son decided to come into this world three years after the project ended. Nevertheless, when it came to choosing a delivery hospital, I turned to maternity staff and wards that had worked with USAID.

The Zhytomyr Oblast Perinatal Center was among the first to join the USAID Maternal and Infant Health Project and was dubbed a project “champion.” It was among the leaders in breaking from Soviet practices and embracing World Health Organization-endorsed, evidence-based prenatal practices.

Headed by the dedicated Dr. Yuriy Vaisberg, the Zhytomyr maternity hospital quickly earned numerous quality awards. More importantly, it became a hospital where women and their families from neighboring cities and oblasts chose to deliver their babies, despite the distance they had to travel.

While I saw the benefit of giving birth at this facility, it took Christian, my partner and father of our child, longer to come around. He couldn’t understand why I decided to travel 100 kilometers outside of Kyiv to check out a maternity hospital.

When we arrived for a visit in April 2015, I found the hospital as I remembered it. The walls still displayed the project posters explaining all the stages of labor, the multiple delivery positions to choose from, the benefits of breastfeeding, and the danger and causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It also continued to provide courses on breastfeeding and antenatal and postpartum counseling to women and their families.

Our little Levko came into this world on a beautiful sunny day on June 18 at a sturdy 9 pounds, 5 ounces, and 22.4 inches in length. As I had undergone a C-section, Levko was put on his father’s chest for two hours to prevent hypothermia. Whoever came up with this procedure should receive a great prize because it creates an incredible bond between the parent and child. As Christian explained, he felt a strong bond with Levko from the first touch.

After two hours of this, Levko was medically examined and then brought back to me for his first breastfeeding. The three of us spent the next five days together in a hospital room which looked more like a room in any home rather than a hospital ward. I could see and hold my son whenever I wanted and feed him whenever he was hungry or needed comfort. Christian helped change Levko’s diapers, held and calmed him whenever he was cranky, and cared for me as I recovered from the C-section.

Getting ready to go home. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

Getting ready to go home. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

As we left the hospital, I couldn’t help but compare how different our delivery experience was from that of my parents. I am grateful to the Center for valuing the importance of these necessary new practices recommended by the USAID project and continuing to offer them. The training and equipment that USAID provided made it possible for these dedicated nurses and doctors to continue to help women give birth safely and comfortably. I hope that, in the not too distant future, all of Ukraine’s maternity hospitals will adopt similar practices.

USAID’s Maternal and Infant Health Project, which ran from 2003 to 2012, provided technical assistance for maternal and child care to 20 regions in Ukraine. More than 50 percent of births in the country today directly benefit from those perinatal technologies.


Olya Myrtsalo is a senior development and communication officer in USAID’s regional mission for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.