From Ukraine to URMC: A Residency of Resilience

Aug. 3, 2023
Ulyana Portrait
Ulyana Khaba, MD

Ulyana Khaba, MD, has been a practicing cardiologist for over 10 years, working at Lviv City Clinical Hospital in Ukraine. She was living her ideal life: she has a wonderful husband, Taras, and they have two sons, ages nine and 13. Ukraine was home, where her life was centered until nearly 18 months ago, when Russian attacks convinced her to relocate her family. Based on her years of experience, you might be surprised to learn that she is now a first-year resident in the Internal Medicine Residency Program.

For the combined Internal Medicine and Medicine/Pediatrics residency programs, the 2023-2024 incoming class of 38 people includes students from nine countries, 22 US states, and 31 medical schools, so it’s common to welcome students from other countries as they bring different experiences and enrich our programs. Ulyana is unique because of the extreme circumstances and fast-paced decision making that led to her matching with URMC.

She only recently came to the US to get away from the Russia/Ukraine war. Joining URMC was not in her original plans. “Other medical students have time to think about their plans, to pick their school, to pick their program. For me, life was saying here’s your chance, but you have to take it right now!” she said. “This is a chance you have once in a lifetime.”

Lviv is in the West of Ukraine, so when the earliest rumblings of Russian troops moving toward the Eastern border came on the news, it felt far from home at first, and she held on to the hope that things would eventually calm down. Her sister, Nataliya Uboha, had moved to the US in the 90s and is an oncologist at the University of Wisconsin (UW). It was Nataliya who urged Ulyana to send her sons over to the US to avoid the coming unrest, so the boys traveled to Wisconsin while Ulyana and Taras stayed home. “I am so grateful that my sons never had to hear a single alarm or go to a shelter,” she said.

As tensions rose, she put in a request at work for a three-week vacation, and booked a flight for February 24, 2022. That turned out to be the very same day Russia officially invaded Ukraine, and her plans fell apart. After several border crossings and last-minute flights, they made it safely to Wisconsin and family.

Having only planned for a vacation, it was time to figure out next steps to stay in the US long-term, and more importantly, be able to practice medicine here. Nataliya, as an oncologist at UW, had a connection to Ruth O’Regan, MD, our chair of Medicine, who used to be head of oncology at UW. O’Regan also connected with medical education leaders Brett Robbins, MD, and Amy Blatt, MD, to better understand the circumstances.

“The laws of medical licensure and board eligibility are vastly different around the globe,” explains Robbins. “Most who already have licensing in other countries and wish to practice in the US must complete at least some of the residency at a US ACGME accredited program to qualify. Dr. Khaba brings over 10 years of real-world attending level cardiology experience to our residency program. She has been amazing both clinically and graciously in this role as an R1 equivalent.” 

“Ulyana’s path to our residency certainly differed from many of our applicants,” said Blatt, “but her extensive clinical background and personal situation was very compelling. In our conversations leading up to her match with our program, she consistently impressed us with her sincerity, resilience, and positivity despite all of the hardships she and her family have faced. She is a highly qualified physician and a truly wonderful human being who has transitioned into the daunting intern role with grace and determination. We know the past two years have diverged from the life story she envisioned for herself, and we are incredibly fortunate she’s writing the next chapter with us.”

Many people think of residency as an early step in your medical career, but Ulyana doesn’t see this as a step backward, it’s a step forward. “The US system is so different. It’s not ‘retraining’ any basics, it’s a whole new page for me. I’m still learning new things every day. It’s all new and useful.”

O’Regan agrees: “We were so excited when Ulyana matched into our residency. Her extensive experience during her time in Ukraine brings a new perspective to our residency program.” By bringing her previous experience as a cardiologist with her, Ulyana is a shining example of why diversity and inclusion are so important to medical education. She is sharing her wealth of knowledge, enriching the learning environment for both faculty and residents. There are opportunities for her to learn from others, and others to learn from her, as is true with every resident and fellow who journeys through our programs.

She is actively engaged in sending aid back home. She connected with the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America (UMANA), which helps with medical and humanitarian aid. “I want to continue to help Ukraine, and help connect other people who want to help. People have gotten used to it, it’s not fresh in the news anymore, but the war is still ongoing,” she said. If you are inspired to help the people of Ukraine, the University of Rochester has put together this list of resources. You can always reach out to Ulyana directly, she’s happy to help.

Things have finally slowed down enough that Ulyana isn’t making last-minute decisions or life-altering commitments at rapid speed anymore. She is settled in Rochester with her husband, happy with her medical career, and with life settling down, her two sons will come to join them soon. What will come next for their family? “I don’t plan for more than a week in advance,” she said with a smile. “You never know what’s going to happen, even the good.”

Ulyana Vacation
The Khaba family in the Carpathian Mountains, Ukraine
Ulyana Family
Celebrating the Holidays in Wisconsin