Dubai: Cries from men echoed throughout the city of Cairo as the wounded were whisked away into the halls of the university hospital Qasr Al Ainy. Soldiers with gashed thighs, open wounds and broken arms were being admitted for their injuries, and the recovery rooms were filling up.
As the doctor rushed to see his next patient, a young Emirati nurse called Atheeja Ali Nasser Bussaibah was already at the operating theatre sterilising the scissors and syringes.
It was October 1973 and the month-long Arab-Israeli War was in full swing.
“I was strong and stood firmly in my place, nothing scared me. I gave the doctor the scissors and the tools that I had just sterilised with boiling water, and assisted with all the surgeries,” recalled Atheeja, who is now 68 years old.
Speaking to Gulf News at her home in Al Twar, Atheeja is well-known in the local community for being one of the first Emirati nurses, and is regarded as a pioneer.
“I didn’t go to school, and it was common at the time for girls to stay at home. My father was a fisherman with no formal education either. I remember though that my parents did enrol me once at Al Khansaa Primary School in Dubai when I was nine years old, but it wasn’t for me and I only attended it for two months,” she said cheekily.
But that didn’t stop Atheeja from teaching herself how to read and write and when she turned 11, volunteered to help at the Kuwait Consulate.
Prior to the country’s establishment as a federation, the UAE used to be known as the Trucial States, which heavily relied on the assistance of Kuwait who provided citizens with hospitals and doctors, schools and books.
The Kuwait Consulate was also offering scholarships for women and a six-month first-aid nursing program in Kuwait.
“By the time I got older, I decided that I wanted to be a nurse. At first, nobody could understand why I wanted to work. I came from a conservative family with a household name, and was told that nobody would want to marry a woman that worked,” she said.
“But I applied for the nursing program and was ready to fly out to Kuwait. While I was heading to the airport, the driver was involved in a traffic accident so at the end, I didn’t go. Ultimately, it worked out and I managed to get trained here in Dubai,” said Atheeja.
“I worked every day with the head nurse of Kuwait Hospital, where she trained me for six months. Once the course ended, I was required to do an exam and I passed with an excellent score,” she remembered proudly.
Having completed the first-aid training in 1962, Atheeja then joined the Kuwait Training Office where she enrolled in the nursing program and graduated in 1969; becoming one of the first nurses in Dubai.
Atheeja continued to work as a junior nurse at Kuwait Hospital, and one of the fondest memories during her stint there was being present for the delivery of the first baby.
“Women would give birth in their homes with the help of a midwife, and nobody went to hospital. So when the first baby was born at the hospital, that was big news and on that day, Noor Ali Rashid took a photo of the head nurse holding the baby, the doctor, and me,” she said. Rashid (1929-2010) was the UAE’s official photographer since 1959 and was present for every landmark moment, capturing the nation’s history through a lens.
Rashid was named the ‘royal photographer' by the late Shaikh Zayed and was the official photographer for the Al Nahyan family, as well as the ruling families of the seven emirates.
“At the hospital, I assisted the head nurse, who was from India. But sometimes she wouldn’t come so I had to prepare the trolley with medicines and sort out the patient’s dosage, and write reports in their file. I also had to write prescriptions, and that was when I forced myself to learn English.”
Atheeja recollected the days when sick, elderly patients would sit in the passenger seat of a Land Rover and come from miles away to see a doctor.
“By the time the patients arrived at the hospital, they were dizzy and unable to walk straight because of the bumpy ride, and would get very tired. There were no wheelchairs either, so instead, I offered to visit the patients at their homes.”
As Atheeja’s thirst for experience grew, so did her career and soon enough, she was in charge of a clinic in Bur Dubai.
“Soon, the war started between the Arab States and Israel, and Egypt was looking for volunteers. So with a delegation organised by the Ministry of Health, I joined the group of volunteers,” she said.
The Arab-Israeli War was fought from October 6 to 25, 1973, by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria against Israel. The hospital of Qasr Al Ainy was the main infirmary were all the wounded were sent for treatment.
“I spent the entire month in Cairo and it was a very difficult time. I saw everything and did my best to work hard and stay strong,” she said with a heavy sigh.
“One day, the doctor I worked with was so impressed with my work that he asked which university I had studied nursing. I replied that I went to Kuwaiti Medical University in Dubai, and he was so surprised because he had never heard that institution before. It was only later on when I realised my mistake, and that I had accidently made the name up,” she chuckled.
Upon her return to the UAE, Atheeja remained an active member of the community and for decades, has made significant contributions to highlight the Emirati women role in nursing. She is also known for being the first woman to take part in an auction for car number plates with Dubai Traffic Police, and has composed a number of poems on the love of the country. Atheeja described poetry as "not only a way of entertainment but also a method of instruction."
She was also assigned by Shaikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, upon the instructions of the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed, the Ruler of Dubai, to perform a national duty and raise money from the citizens of Dubai for the Palestinians to support them in the war.
“I am retired now and for health reasons, stay at home. Although I cannot be as active as before, I still hope that one day, I will see more Emiratis willing to join the nursing profession.”
- In 1971, Atheeja was deputized for courses in banks; Dubai National Bank and the Kuwait Gulf Bank.
- 1972-1976: Returned to the Ministry of Health to work as Public Duties and Services Supervisor.
- 1973: In her capacity as a nurse, she contributed to the Arab efforts during the October War.
- 1976-1978: Established, managed and supervised the Blood Bank Department in Kuwait Hospital, Ministry of Health.
- 1978 onwards: Worked as Public Duties Supervisor at the Sharjah Medical Services, reporting to the Ministry of Interior and holding the rank of Retired Lieutenant.
- Medal of excellence, 2nd class, for the medical services she offered during the October War in 1973.
- Honoured by the UAE Women’s Association for her participation in the 2nd Cultural Festival for Family and Child, 1992.
- Honoured by the UAE Minister of Health in 1992 to appreciate her services at the ministry.