The Ukrainian Healthcare System As Seen Through Childbirth

The more time we spent in Ukraine having our boys, the more we came to realize that the differences between our two respective countries ran deep in just about every context.  It wasn’t a situation where our system, our approach or our norms were better, but we were used to the way we did things in our part of the world, which made it difficult to adjust to the way things are generally done in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

One of the aspects of life in which our two societies are vastly different involves the world of healthcare. When you have twin sons in Ukraine, you’re obviously going to be dealing with the healthcare system in that country.  The bottom line is that the care we received was good.  Our boys came home healthy, and that was after one of them encountered a serious medical issue the day after he was born.

The back entrance to the hospital.

The back entrance to the hospital.

That makes sense when looking at outside data.  According to the World Bank, Ukraine’s infant mortality rate is only slightly higher than that in the United States.  We knew from our initial fertilization process that those clinics were extremely modern, clean, efficient and professional.  I have to admit, though, that I got a little trepidatious when I looked at our maternity hospital online.

The hospital looked clean but old.  It’s a state-run hospital, which is a form of healthcare that I have never experienced.  Tiffany was more familiar with it having grown up in Canada. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I didn’t expect to be living in the lap of luxury.  There are private hospitals in Ukraine, but the costs for them were astronomical, so that wasn’t really an option.


One of the first things we noticed about the hospital was that it was definitely a ‘no-frills’ operation.  The first night we were there, Tiffany wanted to get some sleep.  She was looking around for quite awhile and eventually realized that there were no linens in the room.  I flagged down a nurse and pointed at the bed before making a motion as though I was drying myself off.  She responded by shaking her head and pointing at us, as if to tell us we needed to supply those things.  OK – that was unexpected.

The ambulance driver was also on the gate repair crew.  The gate was not working all day.

The ambulance driver was also on the gate repair crew. The gate was not working all day.

In addition, we found out when we went to have our DNA test at the US Embassy to prove paternity that the hospital only had one ambulance.  That made sense to a degree, as this was not a trauma hospital, but we had to wait for the ambulance to finish its previous run before we could head to the embassy.

Operational Approach

After the boys were born, we spent quite a bit of time with the nurses, which is typical of any NICU ward in the world, I would guess.  We started wondering what was happening when those same nurses were there the next day.  Did we miss a shift change?  It turns out that we didn’t, as the doctors and nurses there work 24-hour shifts.  That seemed pretty wild to us, but I guess after a while you get used to that routine.

There was also a definite hierarchy in place.  Nursing is a very good job in Ukraine, although we found out the average salary there is between $800 and $1,200 per month, depending on specialty and experience.  There was also a definite hierarchy there.  Doctors were treated almost as demigods, but the nurses were very hardcore in their dealings with patients.  You didn’t mess with the nurses, and the nurses didn’t mess with the doctors. 

Treatment Approach

It seemed that many of the approaches to treatment of the newborns was from a bygone era in the Western world.  For instance, when Mickey was intubated, one of the staples they fed him through the IV was glucose.  That was bizarre for us, as that wasn’t typically something used to treat pneumonia, and it wasn’t like Mickey was diabetic.  Although, given the language barrier, it was difficult to determine what substances they were using sometimes.

Breastfeeding is also not the preferred method of nourishment in Ukraine.  Tiffany heroically took hormones and pumped every three hours for months before the boys were born, as she was hellbent on giving them breastmilk.  She did quite well with it, but the nurses were very frustrated when she tried to latch them.  It was obvious that they weren’t used to dealing with breastfeeding, and they kept pushing us to use formula, which is still the norm there.

I was waiting for a squirrel to jump out of this thing.

I was waiting for a squirrel to jump out of this thing.

After Mickey recovered from his pneumonia, he had to undergo regular blood tests.  The nurse who did the tests was very nice, but we were quietly horrified at the test kit she used.  She walked in the first time with this old, huge briefcase thing that looked like it was out of the 1930’s.  It apparently worked, but it looked like something from the 19th Century.


Paying the bill was quite something.  When they told us we were going to be released, we tried to ask for a bill.  The head doctor didn’t speak English, so I pulled out some money and made a motion with my hand as though I was signing something.  She seemed to understand, and a little while later she came to our room with a hand-written invoice.  Of course, we couldn’t read a word of it, but she pointed to the bottom line.  It was a bill for around $16,000 hryvnia, which was about $600.

$600 in Ukrainian cash.

$600 in Ukrainian cash.

That amazed us.  $600 for two weeks in the hospital, two weeks in the NICU, two C-section deliveries and all the care that was required.  We would’ve burned through $600 in about .000004 nanoseconds in any American hospital.  I piled up the multicolored cash on a table, bundled it, handed it to the doctor and that was that.

Overall, we have to say our experience was positive at the hospital.  The nurses were gruff, but we eventually figured out that this was the norm.  The language barrier was really stressful, and running linens back and forth between our apartment was a pain.  Otherwise, the bottom line is that we came home with two healthy babies, and that’s all you can ask for in that situation.