Ukrainian Doctor Nataliia Kuchma Finds Safety and Community at U of M Medical School

Dr. Nataliia Kuchma came to Minnesota from her home country of Ukraine in September 2022, seeking safety for her daughter as her husband stayed to fight in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

In late summer of 2022, Ukrainian physician Dr. Nataliia Kuchma was forced to make an impossible decision. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, her husband joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and she feared for the safety of their then five-year-old daughter, Solomiia. When Dr. Kuchma’s sister Yaroslava presented an opportunity to escape to the United States, Dr. Kuchma was left torn between relief from the escalating conflict and the pain of leaving Ukraine behind.

“I didn’t want to separate from my husband, or from my parents,” Dr. Kuchma recalls. “But it was the third month of war, and we were really afraid. I was afraid for my daughter.”

Dr. Kuchma’s home of Sumy, located just 25 miles from the Russian border, became a gateway for Russia into Ukraine, making the city very unsafe. Dr. Kuchma, a gastroenterologist and clinical researcher at Sumy State University, began seeing her patients virtually, and Solomiia could no longer go outside. Driven to keep her daughter safe, Dr. Kuchma agreed to go to the US, leaving the life she knew behind.

Dr. Kuchma, Solomiia and Yaroslava arrived in Minnesota in September 2022 to live with a host family in South Minneapolis.

“This host family are really amazing people who really help us,” Dr. Kuchma says.

Despite missing Ukraine and their loved ones, they began adjusting to Minnesota, finding comforting similarities between the two places.

“Minnesota is very similar in nature to Ukraine,” Dr. Kuchma expresses. “There are very incredible people. People that I meet are very open and welcome you. They want to help.”

Dr. Kuchma continued seeing some of her patients via telehealth, but she wanted to find work in Minnesota. After two months in the United States, she received permission from the government to seek employment and began to apply for jobs.

“My neighbors helped me,” she recalls. “They told me about this position at the university, and I sent my resume.”

She began working as a clinical research associate in Dr. Alexander Khoruts’ microbiota therapeutics lab in the beginning of 2023.

“We have a program to find donors for microbiome transplantation, and I am involved in those projects,” explains Dr. Kuchma. “They really try to involve me in some clinical diagnoses and interesting cases, which I appreciate because I cannot practice as a physician in the United States.”

Working in the lab has helped Dr. Kuchma improve her English and assimilate to Minnesota. Her work provides a sense of meaning during this frightening and emotionally distressing time. Being a doctor was Dr. Kuchma’s childhood dream, and being welcomed into a community of medical researchers in the U.S. has been a great comfort to her.

“The news out of Ukraine is just terrible. It’s painful for me every day,” she says. “But having similar work that I had in Ukraine and working with the cluster of faculty here is really great. They are really good at helping me.”

Dr. Kuchma has grown to love Minnesota and is studying to become a licensed doctor in the US. Her ultimate hope though is to return to Ukraine to be reunited with her husband and bring the new knowledge she’s gained at the U of M back to her patients.

“In Ukraine, only in the capitol do we have these special centers,” she says. “I read about it in Ukraine as the future, and now I’m here, and I’m involved in the process. I can be involved in developing this.”

Dr. Kuchma expresses the utmost gratitude to the community that has welcomed her and her daughter with open arms.

“Thank you, very big,” she says. “Thank you to the people of Minnesota. Thank you for asking me questions and not forgetting about Ukraine. These are beautiful people.”